World on a string

Man on Wire
Dir. James Marsh; feat. Philippe Petit, Jean-Louis Blondeau, Annie Allix(PG-13)

If I’m not mistaken — and for those who’ve been following along with the home version (hi, Mom; love ya lots) — the last documentary I reviewed for these pages was the British-produced In the Shadow of the Moon, which won the World Cinema Audience Award for documentary film at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.

My charge at the moment, similarly, is to record my thoughts relative to the British-produced Man on Wire, which won the World Cinema Audience Award and World Cinema Jury Award (both for documentary film) at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

This chain of events, of course, prompts a burning question: Am I, as seems abundantly apparent, some sort of unprecedented and exponentially better-with-age human good-luck charm, inasmuch as Sundance plaudits and British documentaries (or, at least, those centered on tremendous feats of what is often termed “human” achievement) are jointly concerned?


Well, no.


(Sorry. That first one was far more “enthusiastic” than it was, say, “not a lie.”)

Truth is — and not that this really bears mentioning, but — both films had wrapped up their Park City promenade well before making their ways to my neck of the woods, so ... well ... freaking of course not.

But hey: Ain’t like I stopped ’em, either. So, yeah. Anytime, fellas. (And, while we’re more or less on the tangential subject of award-winning docs from last year: Please — and I’m serious about this — please seek out for yourself and watch Jennifer Venditti’s Billy the Kid. It’s not what it sounds like, but it is one of the most affecting stories I’ve ever seen on film.)

All right, so, Man on Wire. Now, look: Chances are, I’m guessing, that I’m just the slow guy on this one, but somehow, I didn’t know this. Had you heard of this? On the morning of August 7, 1974, about four months prior to the release of The Godfather Part II and (as the press notes were kind enough to remind me) just the day before Nixon’s announcement of resignation, a 24-year-old French former street performer (bearing a rather striking resemblance to young Malcolm McDowell, incidentally) took his first literal steps onto a cable that stretched 110 stories above the ground between the rooftops of New York’s World Trade Center’s Twin Towers — the culmination of a dream more than a half-decade in the making. His plan (more or less): To traverse said distance on a high wire as many times and put on as spectacular a show as possible before he was arrested or otherwise made to stop (because such things, after all, are pretty thoroughly illegal).

Seriously: What do they teach in history classes, again? Why is this the first I’m learning of this?

Ah, well.

The film opens in the grip of somewhat frenzied reenactment footage, shot, as all the film’s recreations will be, in shadowy, almost chiaroscuro black-and-white. The music is tense, our first-person narrator excitable. We’re not quite sure what’s going on (well, we have a bit of a hunch), but we can tell the stakes are high. Wait, here’s our speaker: Fair-haired, supremely animated, alive about the eyes. “Philippe,” we read. We’re shown a 1974 calendar, architectural plans; we’re informed that it’s August 6. Silhouetted figures flit about in preparation; Nixon, on television in the foreground, delivers lines. “Well, I am not a crook. I’ve earned everything I’ve got.” Loading up a van now. Before long, we’ve been introduced, talking-head style, to much of the “crew”: Jean-Louis, he of the practicality and gray hair and big, awesome eyebrows; lovely Annie, she of the saddish, soulful eyes and similarly level head; loyal Jean-François, who mentions (adorably) that to disguise himself as an American workman, he “had lots of pens in my pocket” — except he says it in French, so it’s “un beaucoups des stylos,” and it comes out all pouty and sexy. (You know, like they do.)

From there (or thereabouts) the film cuts back and forth — our “A” story is the Trade Center walk attempt, our “B” story the events more-or-less leading up to it. Particularly endearing is the tale of a dentist’s-office conversion that leads to a love affair with an in-progress edifice, and the obsessive calling to tame it via tightrope.

You know. That old story.

“I started, as a young, self-taught wire walker,” Philippe Petit, by now clearly our protagonist, tells us, “to dream of, not so much conquering the universe, but as a poet, conquering beautiful stages.” And indeed, as the film progresses, we watch, awestruck — with the aid of stunning archival footage — as he accomplishes just that. The cathedral at Notre Dame? Check. Sydney Harbor Bridge? Check again.

Of course, we know the score (almost) as well as Petit does, and his high-steppin’ passport couldn’t claim completion without a stamp from his sweethearts, the Towers, the (then-)tallest buildings in the world. Alas, that way lies conflict, difficulty, discouragement, and a fair share (or more) of heartbreak. Also, though: Beauty, art, love.

Man on Wire is often fun, frequently mind-boggling (if you stop to think about it), occasionally downright breathtaking, and, in a few memorable spots, quite touching. It is enlivened without fail by its sparkplug of a hero, a man for whom the words “irrepressible” and “impish” seem to’ve been invented, but abandoned for want of verve. There are a few unanswered questions here (9/11 goes unmentioned purposely, says the director), but Wire is well, well worth the watch. •

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