Film Reviews

Man On Wire James Marsh

Rating - 8/10

Man On Wire is the relentlessly engaging story of Philippe Petit's phenomenally ambitious and ultimately successful high-wire walk between New York's Twin Towers on August 7, 1974. It's the kind of story that makes for documentary gold; I can almost visualise British director James Marsh giggling gleefully and clearing his mantelpiece in anticipation after viewing his final edit. Indeed, it's clear from as early as five minutes in that Man On Wire is going to be a winner.

Prior to reading about the film, I was unaware of Petit's controversial career. Prior to embarking on the WTC walk, this charismatic, if not slightly unhinged, Frenchman had already constructed and traversed high-wire rigs at such prominent sites as Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. But while both of these efforts carried a few logistical problems and ended in arrest, Petit's dream of walking on a wire suspended 417 metres above the streets of New York seemed like it would be virtually impossible to achieve. Security at the WTC site was much stricter, and the environmental conditions at such an altitude raised concerns amongst Petit's friends and co-conspirators about the safety of the walk. Nevertheless, Petit remained almost obsessively determined and, after one aborted attempt at le coup, plans were made to send crews into each WTC tower to assemble the wire rig on the evening of August 6, with a view to attempting the walk early the following morning.

Marsh's documentary features modern day interviews with all the key players, archive footage of the preparations (sadly there is no film footage of the walk itself), some stunning photographic montages of Petit on the wire and, less successfully, a number of abstract re-creations. These are employed chiefly to plug the gaps in the story that haven't been physically documented by film or photography, for example the perilous journey from the foyer to the roof of the towers. I can see why Marsh employed this method but as Petit and his accomplices are such fantastic narrators, I suspect nothing would have been lost in terms of tension if they'd been allowed to deliver their story directly to the camera, without the need for any fancy images. In more blunt terms, there was something of a Crimewatch feel to those scenes that seemed to cheapen the film slightly.

Ultimately, though, it almost seems rude to complain. The story of Petit's achievement is literally spellbinding and those stunning images of him on that wire, flanked by the tips of two iconic skyscrapers, elicited genuine awe from the audience. Marsh should also be congratulated for two wise directorial choices in not including segments about the tragic fate of the towers and of Philippe's relationships with his collaborators. Clearly this legendary wire-walk changed Petit's life in many ways, opening up new friendships and closing the book on others, but Man On Wire is not a study of the event's aftermath but of the event itself, and Marsh sensibly allows us to leave the cinema high on the beautiful craziness of Philippe Petit's achievement.