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August 03, 2008

Man on Wire

Man_on_wireDocumentaries are often thought of as TV material, so going to see one at the cinema might not be at the top of your list. But every once in a while one comes along that blows you away, and Man on Wire is certainly cooking up a storm.

This is not the first film to be made about Philippe Petit, the eccentric Frenchman who illegally and audaciously walked a tightrope between New York’s twin towers in 1974. But Man on Wire is created with the kind of realism and intensity that has you biting your nails, clenching your teeth and holding your breath in anticipation.

So why would anyone in their right mind want to walk on a high wire 1,350 feet above the ground without a safety net? Petit tells us that it was just something he had to do. OK, so this might seem either completely crazy or pointlessly obsessive to you and me. But when you watch the interviews with the man himself, more than 30 years later, his undying passion, and even slight arrogance, are totally infectious. But Petit was no fool either. He used his cable crossing of the Notre Dame rooftops several years before his New York coup as a dress rehearsal, and even tipped off the French press to get himself on film. He then upped the ante by traversing Sydney Harbour Bridge by wire too. So for him, the world’s tallest structures were the next logical step.

Man on Wire also reveals the months and months of planning and preparation that went into ‘Operation World Trader Center’; the level of practical and emotional support that Petit relied on; and the loss of faith of some of his conspirators.

But what makes British director James Marsh’s docu-drama a stand out success is its hybrid style. The ‘docu’ side gives us a range of lucid interviews from many of Petit’s crew at the time, as well as insightful photos and archive video footage that he had shrewdly gathered over the years. But the real drama also comes from using actors to recreate crucial scenes from the actual event, and interweaving these reconstructions into the account. This adds an exciting edge to the structure of the film, maintains its momentum and nicely blends in with the different story-telling elements. Writer and composer J. Ralph’s (Lucky Number Slevin) pumping soundtrack also heightens the tension.

With a running time of 102 minutes, Man on Wire is a little long; especially for a film that’s essentially about one event. Yet because of its iron-filings-to-magnet effect on the viewer, you don’t really notice the time passing. And even though you do notice that the long-awaited high wire walk wasn’t actually filmed, the photos, eyewitness accounts and the graphic revelations of the heavy-accented but articulate Petit definitely make the climax hugely satisfying.

When you’re watching Man on Wire you can’t avoid thinking about 9/11, but there’s no mention of it in this documentary and I understand why. The two events are completely separate. This film is ultimately the retelling of a tale that made history. The fact that history may have altered how it is viewed, is secondary.

Many of us will never be able to understand Petit’s reasons for tackling this highly illegal and highly dangerous stunt, or for staying on the wire for a full 45 minutes! But most of us will still want to watch and gasp at this self-taught daredevil who achieved the impossible, and actually enjoyed it.

Man on Wire is out now at UK cinemas.

[Reviewed and posted by HC]

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