Most movies are happy to just entertain for a few hours. Some try to
make you think and feel. Very few try to do something more, to offer an
experience that is transcendent and wonderful, that sends you out of
the theater a different person than the one who bought the ticket. Even
fewer succeed. Man on Wire is one of those. Director James Marsh takes
the true life ‘artistic crime of the century’ – Phillipe Petit’s high
wire walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 –
and spins not only a fun heist movie but also a moving tale of
spiritual uplift and beauty.

The film begins in media res with re-enactments of Petit and his band
of conspirators as they sneak into the still-under construction World
Trade Center to set up the wire between the two buildings. Marsh then
flashes back, using actual footage Petit supplied, to fill in the gaps
and to explain this strange Frenchman. Petit was a street juggler and
acrobat who found his calling on the high wire; his flash of
inspiration was to set up a wire in public places where no one expects
to see a man walking on air. He walks between the steeples of Notre
Dame, he walks over morning rush hour traffic on a bridge in Sydney.
It’s a touch of unexpected magnificence punctuating an otherwise normal
day, a reminder of the possibilities of the world.

Amidst the archival footage and the re-enactments of the plan as it
comes together, Marsh includes interviews with the original
conspirators. Looking back at what they did over 30 years ago they
offer context and wise hindsight… but not Petit. Given to sudden,
florid outbursts of poetry and seemingly unable to keep himself still,
Petit seems to be living in the moment, even three decades later. In
turns childlike, arrogant, inspired and inspirational, Petit is the
living heart of the movie. Marsh could have made a film out of the
archival footage and with other interviews, but without Petit that film
would have been some kind of PBS snoozer.

I’m fascinated by Petit. Everything about him makes me think I should
hate him. He’s a complete stranger to modesty, he’s almost irritatingly
hyperactive, he’s self-centered almost to the exclusion of all others,
but he’s also amazing, charismatic and it soon becomes obvious that any
modesty on him would be false. What Petit acheived is amazing and
inspirational, and he knows it and makes no bones about it; in many
ways it’s refreshing to see someone comfortable enough to not be
downplaying their successes.

Coming out of a mildly draggy end of the second act, the film builds to an incredible climax as Tower-top footage captures
Petit on the wire between the Twin Towers. It’s pure magic. In many
ways we’re the most priviliged audience, as the people on the ground
that day simply couldn’t have seen what we get to see – Petit was just
too far up for them to notice that he was actually laying down on the
wire at one point, for instance. It’s a climax as exciting as any
action scene and more moving than any bit of sentimental schmaltz in a
love story. I wish I had the words to articulate why those images
touched me so deeply, but the spiritual uplift from something as weird
as a guy walking on a wire between two incredibly tall buildings is
utterly visceral. It isn’t something as simple as ‘He acheived his
dream!’ but rather the way that a small event like that can radiate so
much beauty and wonder. On one hand what Petit did was incredibly
difficult and took years of planning and training, but on the other it
was an incredibly small gesture that does so much. Watching him walk on
that wire you have to wonder why we don’t take that little step more
often to create awe and wonder around ourselves… or why we don’t look
up more often to see the awe and wonder that surrounds us all the time.

9 out of 10