Man On Wire
Photos and Video
On the afternoon of August 6, 1974, an international group of conspirators, disguised as construction workers and armed with fake IDs, snuck into the World Trade Center to perpetrate what would be called "the artistic crime of the century." The following morning, a young Frenchman named Philippe Petit walked on a cable strung between the Twin Towers-not once but eight times over a 45-minute period. After six years of obsessive planning, Petit became an overnight sensation. One of the arresting officers called him "a tightrope dancer-because you couldn't call him a walker." What drove Philippe Petit to risk his life to perform the most jaw-dropping wire walk in history?
James Marsh's fast-moving documentary follows the irrepressible Petit as he recalls his early exploits walking on a high wire between the towers of Notre Dame-while juggling!-and across the summit of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and features the friends who helped Petit rig the cable and smuggle almost a ton of equipment into the freight elevator of the WTC's South Tower. For the few moments that Petit did not film himself, Marsh adds beautifully shot black-and-white dramatic reenactments, as well as footage of the construction of the World Trade Center and a propulsive score of Michael Nyman compositions that recall the similarly obsessive Peter Greenaway films in which most of them were first heard. With humor and awe in equal measure, Marsh draws a portrait of an artist of reckless daring and impish charm.
Director's Statement Collapse
“I have the mind of a criminal.” That was the first thing Philippe Petit told me when I met him. He then went on to show me how he could kill a man with a copy of People magazine and, before we parted, he picked my pocket. Here was an extraordinary individual who viewed the world in a unique way. Not least, from heights and views that no other man has ever seen. It is fitting, then, that his story is really the oldest story there is. It is the hero going on a journey, or quest, to test himself and achieve a seemingly impossible objective. As a teenage wirewalker in France, before the World Trade Center was even constructed, Philippe was dreaming up a reckless scheme to break in to those un-built towers, rig a wire between them, and to dance on that wire 1,350 feet above the ground for the delight of passers-by. Each one of these tasks looked impossible and the last one seemed like a death wish. In fact it was quite the opposite—as his girlfriend Annie points out in the film: “He couldn’t go on living if he didn’t try to conquer those towers. It was as if they had been built specifically for him.”
I set out to make a film that would be a definitive account of this mythical quest, so I hadn’t anticipated that it would become a fundamentally human drama that, amongst other things, turned out to be a comedy of errors, a love story, a story about friendship and its limits, and a satire on authority and arbitrary rules.
The richness of the narrative comes from Philippe himself, with his endless capacity for self-dramatization and his inability to sit down and tell his story when standing up and acting it out came more naturally. The recollections from his oldest friend Jean-Louis and his former lover Annie are no less dramatic and surprisingly candid about the conflict and antagonisms that their adventure generated. Other contributors gleefully own up to a whole raft of illegal activities and concede more painfully their fears for Philippe’s life and their loss of faith in the enterprise. But for those that made it to the top of the towers with Philippe, the words of his trusted accomplice Jean Francois provide a kind of moral for us all: “Of course, we all knew that he could fall. We may have thought it but we didn’t believe it.”
Inevitably, the film also portrays New York and America in a bygone era. The Watergate crisis reached its dramatic climax in the very same week that Philippe walked between the towers, and Nixon resigned the day after Philippe’s adventure. In 1974, New York was clearly a dirtier, more lawless, and more dangerous city than it is now. It was an era of sleaze, adult film cinemas, muggings, and civic corruption. And yet in this era of zero tolerance, it is hard to imagine the present police officers, judges, and politicians of the city reacting to Philippe’s criminal activities in the way they did in 1974. Back then, they applauded him for his exploits. Even harder to imagine now is a group of French-speaking bohemians breezing through JFK airport with suitcases containing shackles, ropes, knives, and a bow and arrow (!), then hanging around a major New York monument with cameras and forged ID cards waiting for their chance to break in—and actually getting away with it. But in the words of Jean Francois again: “It may have been illegal…but it wasn’t wicked or mean.” That’s a distinction worth remembering.
Film Information Collapse
Cast & Credits Collapse
Principal Cast Philippe Petit
Producer Simon Chinn
Director of Photography Igor Martinovic
Editor Jinx Godfrey
Executive Producer Jonathan Hewes
Co-Producer Maureen A. Ryan
Co-Producer Victoria Gregory
Connect to this film Collapse
About the Director(s)Collapse
James Marsh graduated from Oxford University before working as a researcher and director for the BBC. His breakthrough documentary, Troubleman (1994), chronicled Marvin Gaye's last years and was followed by the award-winning The Burger and the King (1996), a documentary
about Elvis Presley's bizarre eating habits. His documentary on John Cale earned him a BAFTA award for best music documentary, and 1999's Wisconsin Death Trip netted another BAFTA award and a best documentary prize from The Royal Television Society. Marsh's first
dramatic feature, The King, played at Cannes and earned Marsh a Gotham Award nomination. In 2003 he made The Team for the BBC.