French tight rope walker Philippe Petit is a renegade. In acts of defiance, he’s walked across culturally important structures all over the world. His rogue behavior captured the admiration of those who witnessed it, while damaging the relationships with those people he involved in his schemes. In 1974, he set his eyes on the ultimate prize – the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. It represented a challenge of his abilities, a challenge to the loyalties of those around him and a challenge of his own will. Unconcerned with anyone but himself, he tirelessly pursued his dream, doing whatever it took to make his way up the towers and across them. This is Man on Wire.
From a cinematography point of view, Man on Wire glistens. There are times during the movie that I was taken out of the moment because of its beauty. The director, James Marsh, and cinematographer Igor Martinovich, use several different styles of shooting to create different moods (when discussing how they actually performed the Twin Towers walk, the scenes were shot in black and white reminding me of an old robbery movie in look and feel). Most impressive was how they integrated new footage with the old, original footage. The new was grainy and shot with 1970’s style cinematography, totally fooling me – I didn’t know a lot of what I was seeing wasn’t actual footage from the time until I read the press notes. It was also helpful that casting director Adine Duron did a fine job of casting actors who looked so close to the actual people involved 34 years ago.
Intermixed throughout, each person involved in the wire walk was interviewed separately and given playful titles such as “The Australian” and “The Accomplice.” The interviews go from sad to outright silly. Many of the people recall the events with a deep bitter sweet quality, except of course Mr. Petit himself – it was all sweet to him. It seems the only people in Petit’s life were those willing to be focused on his dream; willing to take the risk of breaking the law for him or to follow his wishes explicitly. His girlfriend at the time, Annie Allix, said she felt her dreams were unimportant to him, that only his mattered. Even the way Petit recounts his own story is wildly self-absorbed.
As many well made documentaries do, Man on Wire left me asking questions. Is Philippe Petit a great adventurer, a pusher of limits and an admirable personality because he did what no one else would do? Were the people who followed him across from Europe to commit this crime, mindless morons or were they loyal supporters who thought they were part of something great? Was this act of walking between the Twin Towers an act of greatness? Was Annie Allix a weakling? Is Philippe Petit a person we should admire or someone deserving of the numerous eyerolls I gave him? If he died during the stunt, would I languish in the sorrow of the passing of such a maverick or would I have suggested him for a Darwin Award?
I appreciate the craftsmanship of Man on Wire but don’t feel nourished after having actually seen the account of Petit’s risky highwire act. The film is a well made, visually marvelous movie about a man who, in my opinion, doesn’t deserve such attention. It’s a shame such camera work had to be wasted on a man who, if I had to hear him talk anymore, may have compelled me to throw myself off the Twin Towers (if they still stood).