The Austin Chronicle

Man on Wire

Rated PG-13, 90 min. Directed by James Marsh.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 8, 2008

I vividly recall two newspaper headlines from the 1970s. One is from Feb. 3, 1979, in the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle, regarding the death of someone named Sid Vicious (which I thought was a neat name), formerly of a band called the Sex Pistols (which I thought was an even neater name). I was 13 at the time and a paperboy. The other headline that I still see in 72-point type in my mind's eye is dated Aug. 8, 1974, from The New York Times, p.1, above the fold, and it tells an impossible story about a man who walked – danced, really – on a tightrope strung between the tops of the two then-new World Trade Center buildings. In hindsight, Philippe Petit's inspired and altogether unauthorized bit of daredeviltry trumps Vicious' cool factor by orders of magnitude: Petit made eight crossings between the north and south towers over a period of 45 minutes (!), and all Sid did was look good in a swastika-and-sneer combo and die. Petit's act was the most astonishing thing I'd ever seen until I saw the towers come down, and Man on Wire, Marsh's exhilarating documentary on the fearless French wire-walker's rapturous edifice complex (he'd previously walked in the air between the spires of Notre Dame and the Sydney Harbour Bridge), is equally spellbinding and a model of the documentary form. The notion of "le coup," as Petit and his cadre of assistants and friends referred to the WTC walk, was born even before the towers were fully erected, and Petit's impossibly complex and detailed planning went on for years before finally becoming a reality that, seen here, resembles some sort of Godard-meets-Buñuel bank caper, complete with false ID badges, confederates inside the towers, 1,000 pounds of steel cable, and a stubborn, charismatic leader who just won't give up no matter what obstacles he encounters. And, as a still-elfin Petit painstakingly recounts to Marsh's cameras, there were nearly enough obstacles to waylay even Napoleon, ranging from unreliable team members to the unknowable possibility of high winds gusting and from errant security guards to the very likely potential for horrific tragedy. In the end, Petit was arrested by the NYPD, given a psychiatric evaluation, and charged with "criminal trespass and disorderly conduct," after which he promptly jumped into a waterbed with an anonymous, amorous female fan. While the authorities, the press, and the citizenry of the Big Apple were all asking why, Petit (insightfully highlighting the difference between the French and American mindsets) could only say, by way of explanation: "There is no why. There is only the walk." And now, of course, there are only ghosts in the misty borderland between heaven and earth, where this hopelessly romantic artist once wandered. Ghosts, and this hauntingly beautiful film. (See "Art, Stunt, or Punk?" Aug. 8, for an interview with the director.)

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