Man on Wire: living life on a tightrope

A new heist-style docudrama about a Frenchman who crossed a tightrope between the Twin Towers is a spellbinding tribute to risky living.

Exhilarating! Thrilling! Riveting! Stunning! No superlative could be wasted on Man on Wire.

The documentary chronicles a life-affirming story of a man who was willing to risk his life for no particular reason. It’s about an illegal and dangerous coup where the criminal objective was to create a beautiful spectacle. It’s a nostalgic salute to a pre-Zero Tolerance New York, which may have been riddled with crime but where city officials and residents apparently realised that some things are more important than health-and-safety.

The man on the wire is Philippe Petit, a Frenchman who in 1974 performed the audacious feat of rigging a tightrope between the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center, and then crossing it eight times, saluting, kneeling and lying down on the wire for nearly one hour before being arrested, taken in for psychological evaluation, and getting booked for disorderly conduct and trespassing.

Petit’s formal charges were dropped after worldwide news coverage and appreciation of his performance. His only ‘punishment’ was to perform a show for children in New York; he also received a lifetime pass to the Twin Towers’ observation deck.

The story of what became known as ‘the artistic crime of the century’ began in Paris in 1968, when the then 19-year-old Petit came across an article about the construction of the Twin Towers. Sitting in a dentist’s waiting room, Petit pretended to sneeze so that the other patients wouldn’t notice him tearing out the magazine page which had an illustration of the as-yet un-built towers. He drew a line across the rooftops and over the next six-and-a-half years he became obsessed with the towers, collecting any articles he could find on what were about to become the world’s tallest buildings. He visited New York several times and even took a helicopter ride with a photographer to capture aerial images of the WTC.


The New Yorker front cover on
the fifth anniversary of 9/11

Petit’s other daring high-wire performances, such as between the spires of Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral and across Sydney harbour bridge, appear tame next to his scaling of the 110-storey Twin Towers. He appeared to be dancing on air on that cloudy August morning in 1974 when he stepped out on the wire, as New Yorkers stopped to gawp at the unreal sight 411 metres above them. Thirty-eight years later, on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks of 2001, the New Yorker carried an illustration of a tightrope walker suspended in mid-air over lower Manhattan at the spot where the towers once stood.

Watching Man on Wire (see trailer below), it is impossible not to think of 9/11 and those now iconic images of planes crashing into the towers. Yet 9/11 was not part of Petit’s story and there is no reason to believe he should have some novel insight into the motivation behind, or significance of, the terrorist attacks. So it is a good thing British director, James Marsh, decided not to burden the story with references to the terrorist attacks. Yet still, the scenes showing the WTC being built by labourers, coming to life bit by bit as Petit waited with bated breath for the completion of the towers so that he could attempt his gravity-defying feat, are a poignant and welcome antidote to the ceaseless images of the towers collapsing that we have been subjected to over the past seven years.

Petit and his friends have some inspiring thoughts on life. As Petit says: ‘Life should be lived on the edge – see every day as a true challenge and then you live your life on a tightrope.’ But they were not campaigning for some social cause. Petit is not an activist, but a tightrope walker, unicyclist, magician and pantomime artist, and in the film neither he nor his compatriots are held up as spokesmen for some political cause.

The group’s towering achievement was no quest for ‘dads’ rights’, as it is for those ‘fathers 4 justice’ who dress up as superheroes and climb famous buildings in London. It was not a ploy to raise awareness about global warming, as it was for Alain Robert, the ‘French spiderman’, who climbed to the roof of the New York Times headquarters in June this year. Just hours later, a Brooklyn IT consultant scaled the same building to draw attention to malaria. The two inspired a third climber to make his way up the façade last month, promoting his conspiracy theories about al-Qaeda and the Iraq war. He unfurled a banner which read Bin Laden’s Plan, the title of his own book.

Petit, by contrast, did not parade in the air to lecture the people below. After descending from the Twin Towers, policemen and reporters asked incessantly ‘why did you do it?’ He answered: ‘There is no why.’ It is not just the meticulous planning of the ‘coup’, but also the plotters’ lack of a ‘good reason’ that has allowed this astonishing feat to become an enduring urban legend. They did it simply because they wanted to – it was a challenge, and a beautiful one to behold.

Considering the dramatic and legendary story – and the fact that Petit is such an animated and engaging interview subject, and has footage from several of his stunning performances – one could say that director James Marsh had an easy ride. How could such rich material not make a great documentary? Surely all it needed was some clever editing?

Yet Marsh has brought his own vision to the story. Man on Wire is a spellbinding docudrama constructed as a heist movie. And a heist movie is never simply about the crime itself – it is also about its execution and its plotters. The photograph of Petit in his tight black tricots on the thin wire suspended across the Twin Towers looks like an image of a lone man, but this ‘impossible’ feat required years of planning and it was a collective effort – as shown in Petit’s home videos and in the film’s reconstructed black-and-white images of him and his accomplices smuggling the heavy equipment into the WTC, bypassing security, hiding from a watchman for hours under a tarp, and using a bow-and-arrow (!) to affix the carefully-constructed ropes between the towers.

By involving multiple characters in the story, Marsh brings out the complexity of the plot masterminded by a bunch of bohemian Frenchmen and Americans and ‘The Australian’ (a man Petit met while he was scaling the Sydney harbour bridge). Man on Wire is about friendship, romance and trust, and the possibility of refusing to be bound by any natural or artificial limits. Indeed, the towers themselves were concrete and glass monuments to that very refusal. But Petit took this daring and ingenious endeavour one step further – not being content with watching as the tallest buildings in the world were built, he decided to climb them and cross them, without permission, without a safety harness and without an answer to the NYPD officers’ and journalists’ question of why he did it.

And guess what? He’s still healthy and safe today.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

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