The Twin Tower Walk Of ‘Man On Wire’ Takes Us Back To A Place Of Awe And Wonder

July 29, 2008

(Cross-posted at The Playlist)

“Man On Wire,” the new documentary about the great French funambulist Philippe Petit, tells the story of one man’s passion for wire-walking, and focuses on his landmark achievement: illegally walking between the tops of the World Trade Center Twin Towers.

Based on Petit’s memoir “To Reach The Clouds,” the film is told mostly from his point of view, with color provided by present day interviews with his team of bandits who, through trust and intense concentration, enabled Petit to realize his completely amazing and deranged dream.

Petit is a natural raconteur, if a bit of a ham, but his animated style breathes life into a taut heist narrative. They’re the A-Team of French tightrope walkers, planning an elaborate break-in and rigging the wire by bow and arrow, a method that seems so arcane it’s insane that it actually works.

There are moments when Petit’s voice over veers into that genre of documentary where a voice with a European accent entertains his American audience by describing what life is like at its limit. But Petit is no Werner Herzog and he nearly spoils the film with glib and humorless insights about the existential nature of tightrope walking.

But while Petit charms as the film’s Peter Pan-like protagonist, the object of his dreams are the Twin Towers. We can be thankful that the film makes absolutely nothing of the fact that the buildings have since washed away, even though Petit has many thoughts on that subject. The effect has us ensconced in a time capsule, listening to characters who seem blissfully unaware that the site of their incredible deed has been one-upped, in a sense, by history. The only moment in the film when the towers do not exist happens when Petit remembers seeing sketches of the buildings as a child. Thus, for the film’s duration, we are in the thrall of a man for whom the Twin Towers represent nothing but the potential of an innocent and hopeful future.

As a result, the film offers us a depoliticized way of looking back at the site of our own recent national catastrophe, back when trespassers were treated as artists and vandals and not as potential war criminals. It also offers us an indirect way of marveling at the Towers without thinking about our collective nightmare. Our attention is directed at someone’s singular relationship with the buildings and his dream.

After Petit’s famous walk, the filmmakers cut to interviews of his former girlfriend and his former co-conspirator, whom Petit trusted. Interestingly, each of them confesses that their relationships with Petit ended as soon as he crossed the wire. The reasons aren’t examined. We just see them weep. Does the choice here to avoid a mawkish exploration of their loss stand in for a certain wish not to examine our own? At a time when we seem to be stuck in a highly charged historical debate over September 11th, a debate that doesn’t seem like it will end anytime soon, “Man on Wire” is a gift. It offers us something we haven’t had in a long seven years – the opportunity to look up at the Towers through eyes that just see dreams and architecture.

Click here to watch the trailer.

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