When the idea of building the World Trade Center Twin Towers began to germinate in NYC, on the other side of the globe, a young man in France started to weave a dream. He wanted to walk across the top of the Towers on a wire after they were built. Six years later, with the Towers nearing completion, Philippe Petit fulfilled his dream a few days short of his 25th birthday. On August 7, 1974, he stepped on a wire strung across the roof top of the then tallest buildings in the world. Hailed as ‘The Artistic Crime of the Century’, Philippe Petit’s breathtaking, and illegal, high wire act is the ultimate test of the human spirit, pushing the limit of audacity and strength.
Based on Philippe Petit’s book To Reach The Clouds, Man On Wire has won over 20 film awards only a few short months after its release, ultimately receiving the Oscar Best Documentary for 2008. Director James Marsh chronicles the extraordinary endeavor of Philippe Petit by means of interviews, dramatic re-creation, and archival footage. Before the WTC, Petit had walked across the two steeples of the Nortre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The WTC Towers meant the summit of his aspirations. In a Sundance Film Festival interview, he described his act as ‘marrying the Towers’.
Director James Marsh has chosen a very human angle to present his subject, such that we’re not just watching an extraordinary circus feat. The documentary reveals a child growing up with unusual physical talents. It vividly depicts the fearlessness of youth, the weaving of a fairy tale, the bond of friendship without which Philippe could not have achieved, and finally the euphoria of a dream fulfilled. The smile on Philippe’s face while on the wire says it all.
The interviews in the film have also brought some very personal elements into this enthralling event. We see Philippe’s childhood friend and accomplice Jean-Louis overcome with emotion, now more than 30 years later, as he recalls and is still moved by the immensity of the experience.
It’s a crime, no doubt, but it’s team work of the highest level of difficulty. That they had to haul hundreds of pounds of wire and equipment up to the roof top, shoot the wire across, anchor it safe, all without detection was itself an incredible feat. Once that was done, the rest was easy for Philippe, he just needed to walk on the wire suspended 1,350 feet above ground.
And that is when the artful part comes in. Philippe had not just walked on tightrope, but performed with grace and serenity, movements conjuring up images of ballet on air. For 45 minutes, he slow-danced across the Towers eight times, lay, knelt, and sat on the wire to the amazement of the awestruck crowd on the ground. There was unspeakable beauty in his magnificent boldness.
Police had to threaten him with a helicopter to get him off. He and his friends were immediately handcuffed, taken to jail, and Phillipe undergone a psychiatric examination. He was later released and given a life-time pass to the Towers. When asked why he did it, he answered:
“There’s no why… Life should be lived on the edge.”
Excellent special features that come with the DVD include Philippe Petit’s 1973 Sydney Harbour Bridge Crossing, exclusive interview with Philippe Petit, and an animated short film based on the children book by Mordicai Gerstein “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers”, narrated by Jake Gyllenhaal. Further, in this post 9/11 world, the DVD is even more significant in that it chronicles someone who had taken the arduous steps to appreciate and to relate to the Towers in a most memorable way.
And then there’s the music. I admit it’s the music that has enthralled me from the start, yes, even with just the menu. While Michael Nyman has written some fantastic original score for the documentary, it’s French composer Eric Satie’s pieces that so captivate me. Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1 is the music that augments the beauty of Philippe’s poetic walk on wire.
While most of us would rather watch life being lived on the edge from the comfort of our living room, we would be inspired nonetheless to venture out of our couch for a little more excitement, and motivated to take just a bit more risks with our life. For us ordinary folks, maybe living life to the fullest is an aspiration challenging enough.
~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples
“If no one ever took risks, Michaelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor.” — Neil Simon
Philippe Petit and James Marsh Interviews:
Click here for the NPR’s Studio 360 Interview
Click here for the Sundance Film Festival Interview on YouTube
6 thoughts on “Man On Wire (2008, DVD): Romancing the Towers”
This sounds wonderful – thank you for posting!
Yes Shari, there are some eye-opening views in this doc… don’t miss it.
Oh, wonderful, Arti. You know how I love the entire reality – the man, the act, the reflection on his actions afterward.
I never would walk a wire, but when I think of writing, I understand completely his statement:
“When I see three balls, I have to juggle, and when I see a wire, I have to walk.”
There is a wonderful interview with him on NPR’s Studio 360 as well. Doing a search for Studio360 and Philippe Petit brings it right up. (Not sure if I can leave links here.)
Thanks for this wonderful review – it gave me a chance to settle in and enjoy the experience all over again.
Actually it was your post “Hanging By A Thread” that motivated me to write this review. For those who have missed the screening in theatres, the DVD gives us so much more valuable resources and background information… I could even think of how the film can be turned into an inspiring teaching unit.
Thanks for the heads up to the NPR Interview. The Sundance Interview with PP and JM is worth seeing too, with clips from the film. I’ve posted the links up at the end of the review. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your response.
This movie was a revelation. I also heard him talk on an NPR podcast and he has a true sense of humor. The movie is definitely worth watching. Vic
Vic, the DVD has more interviews. The special feature is a documentary on its own. A.
But surely Jean Louis wasn’t simply overcome with emotion at the immensity of the experience and how it moved him! He was devastated at how this long time friend abandoned him and his other accomplices as he became swept away with the euphoria of his achievement, one that he would have been unable to achieve without their commitment and dedication. The film also focuses on the unreliability of the newer team members to contrast and highlight this. Yes, it was a monumental feat and extremely beautiful in its execution but, for me, the most moving moments in the film come at the very end when we see how casually Phillipe breaks the hearts of those closest to him. THAT is beautiful documentary filming, subtle yet gut wrenching. Ultimately, Philippe is a man on his own on that wire and it obviously came as a shock to the others to understand that this is the ultimate truth of his existence on the wire, after the feat that will never be surpassed. Fascinating film.
It’s too bad that they didn’t have the portable and convenient technology we have nowadays, like pocket-size digital video cameras, so we can’t actually see Philippe walk across the Twin Towers. Have you noticed that what they’ve put together in the film of Philippe’s walk are all photo stills! It’s our imagination that works in joinging the sequences, and the beautiful movement of Philippe on wire. But then again, all the more wonderful in that, it’s so real and authentic. If it’s digitally recorded, he could be challenged by critics as to the authenticity of the act!
And yes, the end of the love relation and other friendship is so sad.
Thanks for stopping by, reading and leaving your comment!
I finally saw this a couple of weeks ago when it was showed on TV as I missed it when it was in the cinemas. Rivetting stuff … and I love your review. These people are MAD but don’t they add something to the world. And the good thing about this movie is that you knew he made it so you didn’t have to worry (too much!)
I wonder if you have any memories of his Sydney Harbour Bridge crossing? It must be the thrill of a lifetime for an eyewitness just to watch his act!