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© Arsenal Filmverleih GmbH

Man on Wire

In 1968 Philippe’s dream was born, although the object of his aspiration did not exist. While waiting in a dentist office, he saw a newspaper drawing of the yet-to-be constructed World Trade Center twin towers. In August 1968 construction of the North Tower began, and in January 1969 work on the South Tower was underway. Not until August 7, 1974, was the 24-year-old Frenchman Philippe Petit able to pull off "the artistic crime of the century," an illegal stroll between the two, not quite completed, Towers on a ¾-inch, 450 pound steel cable.

James Marsh’s documentary follows Petit’s fascinating, albeit dangerous journey, through Petit and fellow “culprits'” expressive words: photographer Jean-Louis Blondeau, Petit’s oldest friend, intrinsic to the plot’s success; Annie Allix, a friend who gave emotional support; American Alan Welner, always up for an adventure; accomplice Jean François Heckel; American photographer Jim Moore; Petit’s Sydney, Australian collaborator Mark Lewis; the American inside man, Barry Greenhouse.

By his own account Petit was always climbing things, much to the chagrin of his parents and teachers; he migrated to Paris where he gained notoriety as a street juggler, unicyclist, magician, and tightrope walker. His first preparatory walk was in 1971 between the spires of the Notre Dame Cathedral; his next conquest was the Sydney Harbor bridge in 1973, the world's largest steel arch bridge, where, “when taken by the police, he picks a cop’s watch” according to Annie’s recollection.

After almost six years learning everything Petit could about the Towers, together with months the team spent planning – and their audacity is delightful – the time for the coup was at hand. Petit crossed eight times – some 200 feet across and a quarter mile above the crowd. “I looked down… I heard the crowd, saw the crowd, I heard the crowd murmurs.” Some 45 minutes later he strolled off the wire and into the arms of the police.

New York Port Authority Police Sgt. Charles Daniels said: “I observed the tightrope “dancer”' – because you couldn't call him a “walker”…upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine... He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire...Unbelievable really...seeing something no one else in a lifetime would…everybody was spellbound.” The “man on wire” was charged with disorderly conduct and trespassing.

What makes this film special is the incredible amount of photos and home movies that document Petit and his friends’ journey as they passionately recount their soar into fame. What is distracting (and confusing since some of the early footage of Petit in Paris is also in black/white) are the many re-enactments, which, although they fill in visual blanks, are gauche in comparison. Even so, this enthralling documentary is a sublime encounter with Petit’s vision, “life should be lived on the edge (of life)… and then you are going to live your life on a tightrope.” (Marinell Haegelin)


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