Man on Wire

Man on Wire. Discovery Films 2008.

Before watching the movie:

I was fairly aware of this documentary coming out at the time, but I didn’t really know much more than the image on the poster. At some point I heard that the high wire walk was done without permission, and when the police showed up to arrest him, he spent a while walking back and forth to whichever tower the police weren’t on top of and dancing in the middle.

I never really put much thought into what kind of preparation would have gone into setting up a tightrope where you’re not wanted, let alone just getting into the place. I suppose there would be a documentary in that story.

After watching the movie:

Philippe Petit grew up sneaking out around strict parentage in France, and soon found high wire walking as his ultimate freedom. Seeing a drawing of the towers, planned to be built in New York City, in a magazine in 1968, he was seized with the idea of wire-walking between them, and made it his mission to one day do that once they were built. While also doing guerilla performances between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Philippe and his friends/accomplices spend years studying the nearly-completed World Trade Center towers and planning their reverse-heist of how they’re going to get themselves and hundreds of pounds of rigging inside and to the top without being caught. Or at least, not until they’ve done what they set out to do.

I had no idea this event happened in the 70s. I guess that since the movie was released in 2008 I could have known that it wasn’t very recent, but I still wouldn’t have guessed it was so many decades ago. That works in their favor because I’m sure that electronic security systems would have made it a lot more complicated than “find somebody who works inside who will loan his ID badge for an hour to make copies”, “look like you belong there”, and “hide from a guard who seems to be hanging around for no reason for three hours”. The planning involved in designing unconventional rigging that needs to support an adult human while being attached to swaying towers and having no chance of being stabilized with ground wires while not being able to directly and openly study the towers or the plans was fascinating. They chartered helicopters, posed as journalists, and built models based on whatever stealthy photos they could take.

Philippe comes off as a fascinating person with superhuman abilities, with too much hyperfocus on his special interest to make it advisable to model one’s life after. He seems to me like the Richard Turner of tightropes, but I think the Richard Turner documentary took a lot of cues of how to characterize him from Man on Wire. Philippe spends years dreaming and planning for this, but he’s too concerned with the big picture to actually accomplish it without a lot of strategic help from his partners. At one point he was adamant that they were ready but couldn’t give his friend any answers for how they were going to do pretty much anything before point “step onto the wire”. Everyone around him has to be part of achieving his own goals, and that means some of them are left incredibly shortchanged after the goal is achieved.

This movie is helped a lot by how much archive footage and photography they actually have from the training and planning. There’s also a lot of reenactment and recreated tableaux for illustrative purposes, but with all the real footage from the 70s, it’s a bit hard to tell what was original and what was made long after the fact for the movie. Especially Philippe’s practicing in the French countryside seems to have hours of footage to choose from. And of course, all of the footage of the towers themselves must be archival, so they’re fortunate that such iconic works of engineering were extensively filmed, especially when they were nearly or recently completed. Even still, all of the elements aside from maybe the interviews weave together in a way that feels like they belong together and you could believe that they were all filmed for this project if you didn’t know this project was made four decades after the fact.

This is a delightful story of harmless mischief that required an unhealthy degree of obsession to pull off. But the results are so charming and the movie minimizes the downsides to a degree that really nothing takes away from the magic of the feat if you don’t want it to. I’ve seen wire-walkers before but I’ve never seen any as natural as Philippe Petit and what he could do on a wire that wasn’t even supposed to be there. An obsessive mission turned into a spectacular gift to the world.


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