Man on Wire (2008): Thrilling Docu about Philippe Petit, Walking on World Trade Center

Sundance Film Fest 2008–The docu “Man on Wire” chronicles the extraordinary story of Philippe Petit, who thrilled the world in the summer of 1974, when he snuck to the top of the World Trade Center towers and performed the greatest high wire walk in history.

Engagingly told by Petit and those who helped him, “Man on Wire,” like the remarkable event recalled, offers a singular, thrilling adventure.

Winner of Audience and Jury prizes at the Sundance and Full Frame film festivals, and a and popular favorite at the recent Tribeca Film Festival, “Man of Wire” will have its European premiere at the upcoming Edinburgh Film Festival prior to opening in New York on August 15 and Los Angeles on August 22, followed by a national rollout.

As a young wirewalker in France, Philippe Petit became fascinated by the as-yet unbuilt World Trade Center towers. He was determined to walk between them–without a harness, without a net, 1350 feet above the ground. What started as a personal obsession eventually developed into an intricate plan, as Petit and a crack team of accomplices spent eight months developing a bold strategy for their then secret mission.

The challenges they faced seemed insurmountable: bypassing WTC security, smuggling heavy equipment into and up the unfinished towers, somehow suspending and anchoring a wire between them all without being caught. But the true test still was still ahead: Petit stepping alone onto the wire, the awe-struck city watching from below, his daring dream now a breathtaking reality.

Combining thrilling reenactments, candid interviews with the participants, and astonishing archival footage of the puckish Petit and his cohorts, director James Marsh, who previously helmed “Wisconsin Death Trip,” has fashioned a rare documentary that transports, moves, and entertains with all the magic involved in seeing a unique adventure.

The docu is based on Petits aptly titled book, “To Reach the Clouds,” which was told from the artists’ singular perspective. However, the film shrewdly changes the POV and tells the story for the perspective of all participants, best described as “co-conspirators in the artistic crime of the century.

Though grounded in factuality, helmer Marsh approaches his docu as a sort of dramatic feature heist movie. To that extent, he let
the people around Petit play supporting characters. The testimony of stars accomplices allows for the creation of multiple perspectives on the execution of this deviant enterprise, all its obstacles, setbacks and conflicts.

What adds considerable urgency to the experience is the feeling that we get as viewers that Petit and his collaborators had been waiting for 30 years to tell their part of the story, to chronicle the event for future generations. That their recollections have remained vivid makes the docu all the more of an emotional adventure; in moments, you are so immersed in the proceedings and subplots that you forget that the act had already taken place.

Finally, a word about context: It’s impossible to watch the film without thinking of the history of the twin towers over the past three decades. Hence, on one level, “Man on Wire” is an exhilarating celebration of ingenuity and spectacle, of the sky-high twin towers that captured our imagination. But on another, it’s sad reminder of the fateful 9/11 events and their aftermath.

End Note

The Scondary Characters

Jean-Louis Blondeau, a photographer and Petits friend from adolescence, was taking pictures when Philippe first practiced walking a tightrope between two old cedars in the backyard of a youth hostel in rural France. He was Philippes collaborator for the first illegal walk at Notre Dame and for the WTC coup. Jean-Louis came up with the idea to use a bow and arrow to pass the first fishing line between the two towers. On the night of the coup he successfully shot the arrow between the rooftops enabling Philippe to later pass the walk cable. All night Jean-Louis worked on the installation on the North tower opposite Philippe. Philippes success, and his survival, depended largely on Jean-Louis commitment and pragmatism. Although there was constant creative tension between them, Jean-Louis did not want his friend to die nor the coup to fail.

Annie Allix, Philippes French girlfriend, brought to NY from Paris by Philippe for emotional support before the coup. Faithful to the cause, she is always concerned for Philippes safety, although at times she has her own doubts about Philippes vision of the crossing.

Jim Moore, Philippes first comrade in NY, who became an important accomplice during the intensive preparations in Manhattan. They visited the towers together many times, posing as deliverymen or journalists. When Philippe hired a helicopter for a 15-minute aerial survey over the twin towers, Jim took the pictures. But in the end Jim refused to be one of Philippes rooftop riggers on the fateful night.

Mark Lewis helped Philippe with his second illegal wire walk between two pylons of Sydney Harbour Bridge and then joined the team for the World Trade Center adventure. But, fearing for his friends life and not wanting to be complicit in his death, Mark decided to abandon the coup.

Jean-Francois Heckel was enlisted by Jean Louis to be part of Petits original team at Notre Dame. Brought from France to NYC two days before the walk, he is again enlisted by Jean-Louis to help bolster the team. In the process, Jean-Franois becomes one of Philippes most loyal accomplices and his invaluable, only helper on the South tower.

Barry Greenhouse, a tall man in a three piece suit, with long black hair and an outrageous handlebar moustache above a long narrow beard, who Philippe bumped into in the lobby of the WTC. By chance, Barry, who worked on the 82nd floor of the south tower, had seen Philippe street juggling in Paris the previous year. As they talked, it seemed that Barry might be one of the keys to Philippes success. Philippe persuaded Barry to become the inside man.

David (aka Donald) Foreman, a neer-do-well rock musician, Foreman joined the team after the first failed attemptultimately expelled from the team by Philippe the night of the coupbut beforehand had introduced Philippe to his friend

Alan (aka Albert’) Welner, who Philippe and Jean-Louis never trusted. But with the increasing pressure of time, Philippe felt he had no choice but to keep Alan in the fold. In the end it was Alan who almost prevents success by giving up when the team is working madly to complete the rigging at the 11th hour, and Jean-Louis is left with the impossible task of pulling the heavy walk cable all alone.