Three Documentary Films

Man on Wire

(Directed by James Marsh)

The reviews pointed out that Man on Wire never mentions 9/11—as A.O. Scott wrote in the New York Times, that would be gratuitous, because it’s impossible to watch this film without thinking about the fate of the World Trade Center. (I found my stomach churning as the movie started; perhaps because, to a Manhattan resident, the towers’ collapse had such a visceral impact.)

Philippe Petit, then a young French tightrope walker and street performer, began dreaming of his 1974 feat of walking a wire between the twin towers when he saw a drawing in a French newspaper showing the planned structures dwarfing the Eiffel Tower. We follow the years of both preparation for the “coup”, as Petit calls it, and construction of the towers. (Even Petit’s two earlier wire-walks, between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and of the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia, seem to have been rehearsals.)

As with the Patti Smith film, I remember Man on Wire in black and white, although there are color sequences. As in Patti Smith, there is both new and archival footage—in Patti Smith the new footage feels like ritual if not reenactment; in Man on Wire much of it is reenactment, very well done. The 50-something Petit is a central figure, but, unlike Patti Smith, he’s shown constantly interacting with other people. (Although she depends on others for her performances quite as much as he.)

Also unlike Patti Smith, whose structure is circular, meandering, Man on Wire is structured by Petit’s drive toward the culminating act of his career—as if the towers and his career were both intended for this one transcendent act.

Watching the footage of the steel skeleton going up, and the latticework being pulled up and attached, was like watching one of those films in which you see a building demolition (the implosion, the clouds of smoke) then watch all the fragments fly back together. Only in reverse, and the second part is in your mind.

The power of the film is that its story captures you completely, even as your knowledge of the fate of the towers deepens it. Petit keeps rushing to America as he learns, first that construction has begun and then that it is proceeding apace. He has to walk his wire before the buildings are finished but after the roofs are on. He makes ever-more-detailed diagrams and models. He engages his girlfriend Annie and his best friend Jean-Louis.

In America, he poses as a journalist to gain entrance to the building. In France, he practices on a wire strung to measure, his friends jouncing it to simulate the winds he will face. In America, he picks up more confederates—the casualness of this process makes the success of the project all the more astonishing.

The ease with which the crew gets into the building using faked credentials (in hard hats, they’re supposedly delivering equipment to a high floor) makes one nostalgic for the innocence of the age. They crouch for hours under tarps to evade the watchman. They have to carry everything up many flights to the roof. An arrow shot across the void carries a light string attached to progressively heavier lines until the steel cable is pulled across. At last, at dawn, a worried- and exhausted-looking Petit steps onto the cable. And then, from the opposite tower, we see him smiling as he finds his footing.

He lies down on the wire and dances away from the police attempting to grab him when he nears the building—traversing the air between the towers 8 times over 45 minutes.

Watching Petit up there, a tiny figure very high in the sky, you feel that his ephemeral act somehow redeems the towers, gives them a grace they never really had in life. They proved to be no more solid or enduring than his coup—and for a brief time this film gives them all back to us.

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3 Responses to “Three Documentary Films”

  1. seriouspop Says:

    Bravo, Signe. If you can believe it, I haven’t yet seen ANY of the three. I will now. Check out my new blog. -Jerry

  2. pattismithdreamoflife Says:


  3. Bill Pearlman Says:

    Well done. I saw the Smith and Wire, but not from such a thorough perspective. And the reminders of the fate of the Towers one senses in the Wire film, probably have a peculiar resonance for New Yorkers, The context of risk in all the films interests me, and makes the threesome fit in some strong way.

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