I’ll begin by alleviating any curiosity that Man on Wire is somehow a play on Man on Fire. It is not. The phrase “man on wire” is what’s used in the police report under “Details” for Philippe Petit’s trespassing and disturbing the peace charges. The buzz of the world that day, no more details needed to be given as to who this man was.
Man on Wire details Petit’s illegal feat of walking a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. Petit himself was destined to be in a documentary: a fucking rocket blasting off, animated, passionate, charismatic, driven. American Movie and Rock School come to mind with their idiosyncratic protagonists, except here, Petit is incredibly self-aware, having had his life to reflect on his passion. He’s able to examine his life in the most objective of ways, and share his story with brutal honestly and whimsy all at once.
The film boasts an incredible amount of stock footage, which is combined with impeccably shot reenactments. In fact, the quality of stock footage is such that it was actually confusing for a moment in figuring out if this was Petit or an incredible look-alike. It’s amazing that they documented so much of their progress at the time, and only more amazing is the condition and quality of the work.
Petit describes planning “le coup” as tantamount to a bank robbery; his girlfriend at the time recalls him watching endless heist films into the night. And indeed, director James Marsh very clearly sets out to envision this. His reenactments are, again, immaculate, with several shots recalling the camerawork from a Kubrick or Paul Thomas Anderson film. There’s immediacy and danger to these scenes, and Marsh fuses the animated urgency of Petit’s storytelling (as well as other members of the group) with the black and white images to create very tense retellings. But there’s also a great deal of comedy and whimsy that all seemed to be part of the plan.
The film never loses sight of the poetry of what Petit accomplished. There is weight and finality once it’s accomplished, an understanding that something so great has just happened, that the way things were could never be the same. These people all gravitated towards this one singular moment, which occurred before the world, and what else is left? When you finish a book, there is a sense of loss, and in this same way, when Man on Wire ends, you feel as if this apex of achievement ended a lot of friendships and relationships. People had to move on.
I commented to my friend after it was over that the story itself was so great and spectacular that the movie just had to tell it well to be great itself. The story stays with you more than the film itself, but I’m trying not be ungrateful by keeping in my mind that the film was great as well.