Man on wire

The Herald: July 2009

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Man on Wire


Directed by James Marsh

On August 7th, 1974, a young French man named Phillipe Petit stepped out on a cable wire more than 1,300 feet above the ground. An experienced wire-walker, he nimbly made his way across the cable for almost an hour before he was arrested by the authorities and carted off for psychological evaluation. The cable was illegally rigged between the two towers of the World Trade Center, then the world’s tallest buildings. It took Phillipe and his friends six years to pull off, what they called, ‘le coup’. Why did he do it? As Phillipe’s long-time girlfriend, Annie, explains, ‘He could no longer carry on living without having at least tried to conquer those towers because it felt like those towers belonged to them. It was as if they had been built especially for him.’ Phillipe’s right-hand man, Jean-Louis, simply shrugs off questions of ‘Why?’ The spectacle is beautiful enough and Phillipe is passionate enough to merit such an activity. Jean-Francois, another accomplice, admits he was excited by the prospect of committing a crime – it was illegal, he says, but not wicked or mean. It was a crime designed to amaze onlookers and bring them joy.

Through a series of flashbacks that are stylistically reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie, the documentary traces Phillipe’s journey as a young wire-walker, as he discovers his prowess on the tightrope and commits his first ‘artistic crime’ (priests are lured from prayer to watch Phillipe wire-walk across the turrets of the Notre-Dame). Flicking through a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room, Phillipe comes across an article announcing the construction of the World Trade Center Towers. His dream is born. His toothache remains for a week as he races out of the dentist’s clinic, the article (hastily torn from the magazine) in hand. Director James Marsh recreates Phillipe’s adventures as a wire-walker, between 1966 and 1973, as he waits for the World Trade Towers to near completion. I found it unsettling to see images of the Twin Towers being erected – the very slabs of steel and corrugated iron that we saw crumble like matchsticks on September 11th, 2001, are seen raised for the first time in early film footage of the Towers construction. The Towers are so entrenched in our collective memories as a space of destruction and the site that triggered a war, it is difficult to remove this from your mind as you are watching the documentary.

This is a curious documentary: it is a 94-minute film chronicling an act that barely lasted 45 minutes. However, at no point are you bored. As Phillipe and his friends relive their capers across the world (including an arrest for wire-walking across Sydney’s Harbor Bridge, bringing traffic to a screeching halt), their mad adventures all in preparation of this one fantastic feat, you never want them to just hurry up and get on with the plot. ‘Le Coup’ is fascinating in its planning stages – how, for example, do you get a wire across the Twin Towers, in the dead of night? Use a model air-plane? Learn to play baseball and hit a home-run across the chasm between the towers? The answer, when it arrives, is astounding in its simplicity.

Much of the film’s heist-like plot-line of ‘will-they, wont-they?’ is carried forward by Phillipe himself. A masterful story-teller, his body enunciates his every sentence, his hands struggling to animate the nuances of every story for you. In French-accented English, he races to tell his story – his frenetic style is perfectly matched by Michael Nyman’s beautiful score. As with the best heist movies, director James Marsh leaves you guessing until the very end if Phillipe and his crew will be able to pull off the stunt smoothly.

As Annie recalls the day Phillipe nimbly perched atop the Twin Towers, she says, ‘it was so, so beautiful. It was like he was walking on a cloud.’ The documentary is worth watching, if only to delve into the life of a man with a curious and inexplicable passion.