Director: James Marsh
Cast: Philippe Petit, Paul McGill
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“Once upon a time. Now, that’s how you begin a fairytale…” narrates the barmiest Frenchman ever, telling the tale of how he walked a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The stunt was dangerous and utterly ridiculous, but did that stop Philippe Petit? Of course not. As he waxes lyrical about his courageous, daredevil exploits, it hits you hard: this wire-walker is one crazy frog.
Born in 1949, the athletic Philippe Petit first became aware of his “destiny” at the age of 19 at the dentist’s. Waiting for his appointment, he spied a picture of the towers in a magazine. Struck by the sheer scale of the structures, he at once decided that his fate was to traverse the void between them. The only problem? They weren’t built yet. And so began several painful years of recruiting, planning – and waiting.
James Marsh’s documentary of this phenomenal feat unfolds like an intricate heist, introducing the players and the plot with a gleeful sense of conspiracy. Inviting us into its den of thieves, Man on Wire reveals Petit and his band of friends who meticulously map out their coup in glorious monochrome. Artfully inserting interviews among the reconstructions, the young Philippe (an eerily identical Paul McGill) and the old Philippe are both equally enchanting. The latter is so animated in his anecdotes that he virtually acts out the whole thing with just a chair and a black backdrop; turning a tense cat-and-mouse game into a pantomime with an impish grin, his charisma is a stark contrast to his focus when on the wire. It’s suddenly no longer a surprise that so many people were willing to help him in his cause.
And what a cause it is: strutting back and forth above a bustling metropolis, Petit in action is thrilling to witness. When the police arrived, “Man on Wire” is all they wrote on their report. It’s hard to think of how else to describe it. Even more incredible is Marsh’s ability to string together the astonishing sequence; only afterwards do you realise that not a second of video footage of it exists. (Since this was released in 2008, Robert Zemeckis made The Walk, a dramatic retelling of the same event – it’s testament to this documentary’s power that it remains the definitive on-screen account.)
One black-and-white photo frames Philippe against the skyline as a plane looms overhead. The tragedy of 9/11 years later is never once mentioned, and rightly so: the documentary is already invested with a poignancy that never eclipses its titular achievement. Temporarily turning the buildings back into solid landmarks, Marsh crafts an indirect tribute to their importance in a more innocent time – Man on Wire remembers the twin towers not as an object of destruction, but inspiration for an illegal, audacious act that was harmless in its humanity. It’s a fairytale that actually happened – and it’s breathtaking, beautiful cinema.
Man on Wire is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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