Watch Your Step (Documentary Review: “Man On Wire”)

Known as “the artistic crime of the century,” it was the historic death defying feat in 1974 in which one man walked a high-wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center – without a net – blurring the lines between inspiration and insanity.


SnapShot Plot

Today was a pretty special day for New Yorkers the world over, as Pope Francis rounded out his visit to the Big Apple with a multi-religious prayer service at the 9/11 Memorial, this coming only days after the commemoration of that terrible moment the Twin Towers came tumbling down 14 years ago. That got me to thinking about the Towers themselves and what an iconic presence they have come to manifest over the years, and because I’m nothing if not a slave to cinema, I’m also reminded of them because of the new movie from Robert Zemeckis starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, called The Walk, about Frenchman Philippe Petit’s heart-stopping aerial act in which he spanned the Towers on a high-wire, staying up there for 45 minutes and making 8 trips back and forth, all without a safety net.

If you’re at all like me, though, you prefer to start with the original. The riveting, suspenseful, giddy and surprisingly poignant 2008 documentary, Man on Wire features in-depth interviews with Petit and his motley crew of co-conspirators, as well as rare archival footage of the construction of the Twin Towers combined with original footage of some of Petit’s prior stunts at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sydney Harbor Bridge and his ‘training’ sessions at home in France. Director James Marsh also skillfully recreated the many planning stages taking place for six years before the 1974 event, through black & white re-enactments which blend seamlessly into the real coverage from the time.

I refer to Philippe Petit’s team as co-conspirators because of the way this film is presented, much like a heist movie. In fact, that’s the way Petit’s own autobiography, To Reach the Clouds, actually reads, and mirrors how Petit saw what they were planning to do…. very much like a bank job, as he said. And of course their actions were criminal on many levels, although their intentions were never malicious. Indeed, the way Petit talks about the very personal ‘call’ he felt from the Towers themselves, even before they were completed, as if they were summoning him to connect them for just one instant in time, is nothing if not poetic and heartfelt. So yes, it may have been a crime, but oh what a crime it was!



Parting Shot

Man on Wire (its title refers to the hand-written entry of the crime on the NYPD arrest warrant!) won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, and is included in many critics’ top ten lists for that year.  In 2009, it won the BAFTA for Outstanding British Film, as well as an Independent Spirit Award, and the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

There’s something so refreshingly ‘real’ in this real-life story, having to do with themes of Progress, Modern Technology, Business, and the Entertainment industry. I guess what I’m saying (and what I think may lie at the root of this film’s emotional appeal) is that what this small group, some of whom hardly knew each other and didn’t even speak the same language, managed to accomplish was done so without anything or anyone’s help. To say they were a ragtag bunch would be an understatement. Heck, one of them was even a chronic stoner who arrived high the night before the coup (as they called it.) Today, we tune in for heavily promoted dare-devil stunts underwritten by major advertisers and aired over national broadcast and cable networks, with all sorts of gadgetry and technologies facilitating the ‘magic.’ And that’s definitely exciting, but it can’t hold a candle to the kind of raw, edge-of-your-seat nail biter experience you’ll get from a movie like Man on Wire, where I guarantee you’ll be watching with moist eyes, sweaty palms, and a pounding heart.

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