Man On Wire

February 20, 2009 at 10:13 pm (Movies and TV)

When you read a police report from August 7, 1974 which accompanied the arrest of Frenchman Philippe Petit for disorderly conduct and trespassing, the description of the circumstances of the arrest states simply, “Man On Wire.” Before you watch this documentary, you already know that Philippe was successful in his attempt to tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, because otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. But that foreknowledge does not stop this documentary from being  more fascinating than expected.

As flighty and screwball as Philippe clearly is, at least he is clever enough to surround himself with exactly the people he needs to pull his goal off…the encouraging girlfriend who sees the art and beauty of what he’s trying to do; the mentally grounded, practical friend who insists that physics are necessary; the sympathetic hippie who happens to be working in one of the buildings.

We see this plan from its inception, including a mind-blowing level of preparations which to us are even more unbelievable because of the technology available to us nowadays, and because of the totally different way in which someone scoping out a national landmark is now perceived by guards and passersby. We realize, not without poignance, that this situation for a variety of reasons could only have taken place in 1974.

Even knowing Philippe was successful, it’s impossible not to hold your breath at times when the whole plan could seriously unravel, or when Philippe finally takes that fateful step off the top of the building. His success, like any other success story, is owed part to planning, part to persistence, and just…luck. It’s a real reminder of the fragility of everything, the universe’s own high-wire balancing act.

After Petit’s arrest, he had all charges dropped in exchange for some acrobatic performances. His counterparts, the people without whom he could not have possibly accomplished his dream, were all deported. Philippe was on to grander dreams, finding his next art…his friends were left to get back to real life…and while this might not seem fair, it does seem fitting. We’ve all known someone like Philippe during our lifetimes, a flashy person who swoops into our lives at a certain moment, stays in the same compartment of the revolving door with you for a few turns, teaches you new and wonderful things, then exits dancing into the wind as you leave the door in your own direction, contemplating his effects.

If you can get your hands on the movie, which I suspect will be easier to do after Oscar night, I recommend it.


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