August 30, 2008

On the Edge ; Documentary Relives the High-Wire Feat of Philippe Petit


There's no mention of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, in the film "Man on Wire."

There doesn't have to be for the day's tragedy to lend resonance to the documentary about how Philippe Petit, a French "wire-walker" - - funambulist is the proper word -- spent 45 minutes on the morning of Aug. 7, 1974, walking, dancing, prancing and even reclining on a cable stretched between the tops of the two World Trade Center towers.

James Marsh's film looks at that day -- and the prelude to it -- with a combination of interviews, archival footage and re- enactments that are so smoothly edited together that it's sometimes difficult to tell them apart.

But above all, it's a film about a looking into the abyss -- literally -- and conquering it through a combination of staggering audacity, talent and ego.

It's also deserving of the audience and jury grand prizes it won at January's Sundance Festival.

And even though the viewer knows the outcome -- a nearly 60-year- old Petit is featured in the interviews from the start -- Marsh manages to maintain a sense of suspense throughout as he cuts back and forth between re-enactment of the setup for the walk and archival photos and footage of the preparation for it.

He captures the air of innocence of the then 24-year-old Petit and his young team of co-conspirators as they embrace Petit's dream without worries about the potential consequences of helping him walk a quarter-mile above the pavement and cement of lower Manhattan.

Even on screen, it's still a bit harrowing looking over the edge from the roof of the towers and straight down.

But the Trade Towers in their day evoked different reactions from different groups. For most Americans and many New Yorkers, the towers were simply two more office buildings, ugly and taller than others, but never capturing the city's or nation's hearts as had the Empire State Building.

For Arab terrorists 27 years later, it was a symbol of American financial and political hegemony.

For Petit, it was a chance to both amaze the world and to tweak the power structure with an act of performance art and rebellious petty crime, where the wire-walker could put the fun into funambulism.

Petit has told his own story in print and has been lionized in a children's book, but Marsh's film captures Petit's innocent, brazen energy with a sense of scale that goes beyond what most writing could do.

Petit is allowed to reveal himself in all his ego -- oh so French, with both a precision of language and a bluntness about his abilities. Meanwhile, Michael Nyman's music -- stately and melancholic -- sets the pacing for Petit's methodical assault on the towers.

Marsh builds the story to that day, with just hints of the bittersweet fallout for Petit and the people who allowed him to reach his dreams.

And looming above it all: the towers that are not mentioned and are no longer there.



4 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: Philippe Petit

DIRECTOR: James Marsh

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes RATING: PG-13 for some sexuality and nudity, and drug references.

THE LOWDOWN: An artful documentary telling the story of the day wire-walker Philippe Petit walked -- and danced and reclined -- in the air between the tops of the two World Trade Center towers.

Originally published by News Contributing Reviewer.

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