A tall tale tautly told

MAN ON WIRE Di­rected by James Marsh

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film Reviews - MICHAEL DWYER

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.


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