Man on Wire

Posted on December 9, 2008 at 8:00 am

“Beacause it’s there.”Philippe Petit.jpg
George Mallory’s reason for conquering Everest applies to feats of exploration and adventure that include traveling to the moon. This documentary shows us that it also explains how a French teenager leafing through a magazine at his doctor’s office could see a picture of the plans for building the two World Trade Center towers and instantly decide that when they were built, he would string a wire between them and walk across it.
In order to make it happen, tightrope walker Philippe Petit trained and planned for years, and this film shows us the combination of meticulous preparation, whimsical optimism, a lot of hubris, and some well-timed luck combined to make it happen on August 7, 1974, 34 years ago today. The article-less title of the film comes from the designation on Petit’s arrest form. A combination of current interviews with the participants, archival footage, and some mostly understated re-enactments makes this as mesmerizing as the most intricate heist film, and we find ourselves rooting for the young man who wanted to dance in the air and never tried to explain why to himself or anyone else — or profit from his stunt. The result is an exhilarating film about a pure gesture of art, courage, and folly that seems enchantingly gentle. It is also wrenchingly poignant. Every shot of the two towers reminds us of the aspirations of those who built them and the immeasurable loss of 9/11. Every element of the plan to circumvent security reminds us of those who attacked the towers out of hatred rather than joy. All the more important to see this reminder of a moment when a man danced in the air for the pure pleasure of giving himself and the people who watched him a reason to smile.
So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life.
George Mallory

Parents should know that this film has some drug use and brief nudity with a post-wire-walking celebratory groupie.
Families who see this movie should talk about how people discover their dreams and what they should be willing to do to make them happen. How do the participants differ in their feelings about what happened?
If you like this, try: “Rififfi”

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3 Replies to “Man on Wire”

  1. Saw this film with my fourteen-year-old son and we both loved it. We walked out of the theater really mulling over Petit’s courage and hubris. Interestingly, all of Petit’s friends–including his girlfriend–find their relationship with him oddly concluded at the end of his greatest tightwalking accomplishment. We talked about how there’s really only so much you can ask your friends to do for you. They all helped him up there, watched him risk his life. They all dealt with the feelings that came from realizing that if he’d fallen, they would have also been responsible…I found the film a completely absorbing and unusual portrait of a man who was willing to risk it all for the fleeting memory of being on top of the world for one brief high-flying moment. It is wonderful this film was made at all. And the towers themselves are the lost stars of the whole show. I found that so touching.

  2. I too thought this was a finely made film, but the message is certainly alot murkier than what you suggest. The “wirewalker” risked his life and the life of many other people (had he fallen) out of his bizarre sense of “art”. He did this on the Twin Towers. On September 11, thousands lost their lives at the same location who simply wanted to go to work that day. Parents who chat with their children about this film ought to talk very seriously about “risks” and the difference between dreams and crazy obsessions.

  3. This film reminds me of the Reader Digest True Life things. The subjects of the R.D. stories were often caught doing something stupid, criminal, or simply foolish. Then other people had to go through extraordinary effort and expense to rescue them. I remember when this stunt happened and the repsonse was mixed. basically it was a vanity piece. I am glad he survived, and the resulting film is poetic. By the way, no one metioned the children’s book about the same even.
    I tend not to be impressed when peoople do things simply because they can (one of the great truths of adolesence). Good music, careful editing, and a well crafted storyline can make anything look heroic.

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