Man on Wire by James Marsh

James Marsh on Man n Wire

I have the mind of a criminal. That was the first thing Philippe Petit told me when I met him. He then went on to show me how he could kill a man with a copy of People magazine and, before we parted, he picked my pocket. Here was an extraordinary individual who viewed the world in a unique way. Not least, from heights and views that no other man has ever seen.

It is fitting, then, that his story is really the oldest story there is. It is the hero going on a journey, or quest, to test himself and achieve a seemingly impossible objective. As a teenage wirewalker in France, before the World Trade Center was even constructed, Philippe was dreaming up a reckless scheme to break in to those un-built towers, rig a wire between them and to dance on that wire, 1350 feet above the ground, for the delight of passers by. Each one of these tasks looked impossible and the last one seemed like a death wish. In fact it was quite the opposite as his girlfriend Annie points out in the film: He couldnt go on living if he didnt try to conquer those towersit was as if they had been built specifically for him.

I set out to make a film that would be a definitive account of this mythical quest so I hadnt anticipated that it would become a fundamentally human drama that, amongst other things, turned out to be a comedy of errors, a love story, a story about friendship and its limits and a satire on authority and arbitrary rules.

The richness of the narrative comes from Philippe himself, with his endless capacity for self-dramatization and his inability to sit down and tell his story when standing up and acting it out came more naturally. The recollections from his oldest friend Jean-Louis and his former lover Annie are no less dramatic and surprisingly candid about the conflict and antagonisms that their adventure generated. Other contributors gleefully own up to a whole raft of illegal activities and concede more painfully their fears for Philippes life and their loss of faith in the enterprise. But for those that made it to the top of the towers with Philippe, the words of his trusted accomplice Jean Francois provide a kind of moral for us all: Of course, we all knew that he could fallwe may have thought it but we didnt believe it.

Inevitably, the film also portrays New York and America in a bygone era. The Watergate crisis reached its dramatic climax in the very same week that Philippe walked between the towers and Nixon resigned the day after Philippes adventure. In 1974, New York was clearly a dirtier, more lawless and more dangerous city than it is now. It was an era of sleaze, adult film cinemas, muggings and civic corruption. And yet in this era of zero tolerance, it is hard to imagine the present police officers, judges and politicians of the city reacting to Philippes criminal activities in the way they did in 1974. Back then, they applauded him for his exploits.

Even harder to imagine now is a group of French speaking bohemians breezing through JFK airport with suitcases containing shackles, ropes, knives and a bow and arrow (!), then hanging around a major New York monument with cameras and forged ID cards waiting for their chance to break in – and actually getting away with it. But in the words of Jean Francois again: It may have been illegalbut it wasnt wicked or mean.

Thats a distinction worth remembering.