High-Wire Act

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Magnolia Pictures / Everett

Philippe Petit in Man on Wire

On Aug. 7, 1974, a Frenchman named Philippe Petit, aided by a slightly fractious team of co-conspirators, sneakily managed to string a wire between the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, 1350 feet above the ground. At 7:15 that morning he stepped out on the wire and danced and pranced on it for something like an hour before the cops nabbed him.

It was a great, cheeky stunt — and probably one that will remain unduplicable in our age of ever-tightening "security" (which mainly seems to secure us from having much fun). But was it — as press material accompanying James Marsh's documentary, Man on Wire, calls it — "the artistic crime of the century"?

I don't want to discount the daring of Petit's feat (or feet). He was working a hell of a way up from the ground, with the winds whistling and the towers themselves swaying as he traversed the space between them. But no matter how high in the sky a wire is, the person walking it is not an artist. He or she is just a daredevil, trying to grab the gawkers' attention. Since you could probably get yourself killed falling from a wire 30 feet off the ground, additional height enhances the spectacle, but aside from the wind gusts, the risk involved remains largely the same.

Marsh, in his director's statement, adds a certain amount of tosh about this being some sort of "mythic quest," in that Petit claims to have dreamed about doing his trick well before the Trade Center was built or even imagined. But Petit was a Paris street performer (and an authority on picking pockets) before he started walking wires, so one rather suspects that proposition, too.

Marsh's film works best as what he calls a "heist" film — sort of an Ocean's 1350. Using interviews with Petit and his pals, what stills and stock footage as exist and a lot of recreations, he makes something reasonably suspenseful out of the logistics of this not-so-merry band gathering their equipment, rehearsing Petit's act and sneaking into the WTC. But the tightrope walk is a letdown; the conspirator who had a movie camera up there on the roof forgot to turn it on. So the big climax — man on very high wire (or should we say dead man walking?) — is pretty thin stuff. This visual paucity reinforces the feeling that we're not looking at, say, Paul Valery's nephew up there on the wire. Petit is not making any kind of "statement." He's in the not entirely dishonorable tradition of the guys who have been going over Niagara Falls in barrels these many years.