Philippe Petit and the Post Modern Crime Caper: A Review of Man on Wire

In passing, I had heard of the man who had walked across the Twin Towers on a tightrope. I racked it in my brain along with equally bizarre feats: the guy who crashed down Niagara Falls in a barrel, Evil Knievel jumping sixteen cars on his motorcycle, David Blaine being David Blaine—they’re all there together. I already knew the outcome; he made it across. It’s interesting and all, but I was skeptical of Man On Wire, a feature length documentary that focuses entirely on a single fleeting moment. Does the tightrope walker, Philippe Petit have a drug addiction and in his recovery realizes that he must fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a circus performer? Is he doing this as a means for funding an expensive surgery for his terminally ill child? Is it an extreme method for conquering his fear of heights? How is filmmaker James Marsh possibly going to engage me with ninety-four minutes of tightrope walking, and what melodramatic background story was he going to try and scam me with?

[caption id=”attachment_1220” align=”alignnone” width=”430” caption=”Philippe Petit walks between the two towers”]Philippe Petit walks between the two towers[/caption]

Petit enlightens the media’s inquires about his motivation for his tightrope performance with a simple reply, “There is no why.” Just like Petit’s balancing act, the film is not about the “why.” Man On Wire transcends the physical motivation. A skeptic myself, I could not help but become lost in Petite’s lust—his love for life. Petit recounts his adventures in a manner reflective of his exploits: he has the grace of a tightrope walker and the edginess of someone balancing above a violent death. When his old flame, Annie Allix recounts Petite’s nights leading up to the performance at the World Trade Center, she comments on his obsession with crime capers and gangster films. Though his tightrope walking is a public spectacle, it also entails mischief and deceit. As we learn about his character, the similarities to another lively Frenchman become strikingly apparent.
In Petit we see Jean-Luc Godard. Like Petit, gangsters and criminals fascinate Godard, and whereas Godard manipulates the genre into a light-hearted approach to the gangster film, Petit chooses to translate it into art of tightrope walking and the process that goes along with it. Instead of the visuals of film, Petit’s spectacle is the act of walking across a tightrope, which is strung up across massive public venues like the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Sydney Harbor Bridge and ultimately the World Trade Center. It is the magnitude of the venues that move the film along, not just because they are wonderful—which they are—but because the process behind each display becomes an adventure, which even in its innocence, rivals the exhilaration of the most formidable crime capers.

[caption id=”attachment_1227” align=”aligncenter” width=”500” caption=”Phillippe Petit on a Tightrope Between the WTC”]Phillippe Petit on a Tightrope Between the WTC[/caption]

There are no jewels, no safes and no canvas sacks full of money, there are blueprints, moving vans and an impressive collection of Jheri curled wigs and over-the-top facial hair. Marsh utilizes reenactments in the instances when artifacts are not available, and in doing so gives life to the crime caper homage that keeps the film moving steadily forward. Though there are scenes that are incongruent with the purist approach to the documentary, Marsh appeases the documentary film’s necessity for archival material, with old footage and photographs of Petite training on practice wires, as well as images of his actual performances. The talking heads are also there, providing a narrative for the progression of Petit’s exploits. Though Man On Wire is enriched by the dramatization of the tightropes’ set up, the ultimate payoff is the footage of Petit’s performance at the World Trade Center.
The past few years, there have been a number of really great bank-heist films (Inside Man, Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job), but as thrilling as they are, ultimately, the payoff does not compare to that of Man On Wire. Yes, it’s true that we become sympathetic to the objectives of the charismatic thieves, but in the end, watching already wealthy actors pretend to get rich provides only a superficial sense of satisfaction. Man On Wire triumphs, because as a documentary it shows us the glory of a heist and the artistic exploits of a remarkable exhibitionist. Petit and his crew beat the odds, and in doing so achieve a payoff amply greater than any monetary gain. In a press conference following Petit’s post Twin Tower arrest, a police officer overwhelmed by the spectacle, sums it up best; “I figured I was watching something that somebody else would never see again in the world. Thought it was once in a lifetime.”
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