A tall tale tautly told
MAN ON WIRE Directed by James Marsh
12A cert, Cineworld/Light House/Movies@ Dundrum, Dublin, 94 min ANYONE with a fear of heights will experience frissons of masochistic pleasure in watching Philippe Petit’s progress across steel cable wires from a great height in this dramatised documentary. Petit, who has nerves of steel, comes across as a man obsessed with undertaking his daring feats, and with an ego to match his pride in them.
An excellent raconteur, Petit recalls in vivid detail his elaborate plan to “conquer” New York’s World Trade Center by walking across a wire suspended between the peaks of the twin towers, as he did on August 7th, 1974. Even though that happened three decades ago, Petit still exudes a palpable sense of excitement as he recounts the adventure.
Director James Marsh draws extensively on home movies, archival footage and photographs, most of which are in colour, seamlessly interspersed with dramatised recreations mostly in black-and-white, and interviews with Petit and his motley crew of assistants.
Based on Petit’s book To Reach the Clouds, Man on Wire follows him from street performer to his earlier high-wire ventures between the spires of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and across Sydney Harbour Bridge. As he sets himself his greatest challenge in New York, the film observes his minutely detailed reconnaissance tours of the Trade Center.
By coincidence, Petit’s walk is scheduled for the week when the Watergate story broke, and Marsh draws several parallels between both events. Early on, Richard Nixon is giving his “I’m not a crook” speech on television; later, a Petit associate says of the high-wire journey, “Yes, it was illegal, but it wasn’t wicked or mean.” Just as the Watergate burglars posed as plumbers, Petit’s eager team get fake ID cards and pose as businessmen and workmen to gain access.
Petit’s story is set against the history of the World Trade Center, from his discovery of the design plan in a newspaper to footage of the construction. There is no reference to the fate of the buildings and their occupants on 9/11; nor is there any need when the resonances are so eloquent though unspoken.
The pacey rhythm of the storytelling is enhanced by a soundtrack featuring familiar Michael Nyman compositions (including Drowning by Numbers and Chasing Sheep Is Best Left to Shepherds), along with period hit singles (Albatross, A Fifth of Beethoven) and excerpts from Grieg, Erik Satie and Vaughan Williams.
This fascinating film builds to the main event, when Petit embarks on his walk 450 metres above Manhattan. Despite the paucity of moving images available, it is a thrilling sequence. Acutely aware of all the risks, Petit cannot resist proceeding, and there is a beatific smile on his face as he makes the precarious crossing again and again. When he dares to lie down on the cable wire, it triggers a vertigoinducing rush, but it’s impossible to resist watching.