American humorist Fran Lebowitz once said "Your life would not make a great book, don't even try" -- while I love Lebowitz's sentiment, one could strongly argue that some lives make great movies. As is the case of Philippe Petit, whose extraordinary life, at least a segment of it, is detailed in the new documentary Man on Wire.
Directed by James Marsh, Man on Wire tells the story of Mr.Petit, a French street performer who in 1974 walked across a metal wire that was illegally mounted between the now fallen Twin Towers in lower Manhattan. While the act in of itself is a truly breathtaking sight (yes, there is footage), the narrative that leads us to these climatic moments is even more engaging.
The story begins with Mr. Petit describing the first time he observed an artist's rendering of the not yet built World Trade Center -- the moment he lays eyes on such a sight, something in him clicks and he knows that it would be his destiny to cross the towers via a death-defying tightrope walk. He immediately sets out training himself on a wire and planning his first stunt. He brings along several friends and accomplices, including the flame of his youth. As his journey begins and the WTC is being built, we watch as he prepares himself by first walking between the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral and later on conquering the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia. As the closing act approaches we move to New York, where he collects a team of willing participants who have been swayed by his charisma and a yearning to do something important, different and in a few cases -- illegal. The last portion of the film goes down like any great heist picture, with obstacle after obstacle being overcome through tenacity, a relentless desire to fulfill a vision, and pure luck. The picture culminates with our hero successfully playing the part of artist, acrobat and divine being as he seemingly strolls thousands of feet above downtown New York on a 450 pound wire strung between the now fallen symbols of American prosperity.
The film is finely crafted by Marsh and editor Jinx Godfrey, who intertwine stock footage, animation, interviews and reenactments -- giving the audience a picture that is fluid and building -- the film's plot always being presented by its narrator in the present rather than past tense, which keeps the viewer feeling as if they are watching an actual actual event unfold. The pacing ebbs and flows -- our director knows when to keep the narrative racing and when to break the tempo and let an emotional moment breath. Because of this, it never plods as many a documentary featuring this many talking heads. Another reason for its perceived expedience is that our helmer's greatest strength lay in is his ability to really pull performances from his subjects- enlightening us with their revelations and none is more enchanting than Mr. Petit, our high-wire walker, himself. By the end of the film, he could probably recruit any audience member to follow him to complete his next death defying showcase.
The major weakness of the film is present in some of the previously noted reenactment scenes. While many of these reflections of historical moments come off as so truthful that they fool many into believing that they are pieces of actual footage, there are just as many that tread the territory of cable mini-series. In that sense, the picture has an occasional uneven quality to it. Ninety percent of the work is fantastic and melds together as one cohesive whole; and the remainder either falls victim to, or almost falls victim to, the rare beat that took me out of the work by simply being tonally inept.
Stylistically speaking, this is a film that lends itself to those that certainly came before it -- and certainly is quite a loaded remark. There is absolutely nothing new here in the use of the medium -- the manner in which sequences are built and presented has clearly been influenced by the landmark work of pretty well known documentary filmmakers -- see Michael Moore. Now where our filmmakers stage a great departure here, aesthetically speaking, is in these aforementioned reenactment pieces. Like I had earlier suggested -- the ones that work, really work. They have a certain pseudo-realistic quality, playing with the picture's look, framing, and camera movement to simulate home recorded films -- but with a more deliberate touch from a directorial stand point.
This is a film that is about fearlessness. In the most literal sense -- yes walking on a wire between the Twin Towers takes a dash of fearlessness. What I'm referring to can be summed up by Petit himself. He reflects in the film that as he stood looking over the edge of the WTC, he realized that this could be his end. He says that his comfort came in the idea that even if he were to die, it would be in the act of his art, of his passion, of love and of life. This is the core of the film. No matter what the stakes, what the pain, what the discord -- we should never stop ourselves from following through with our goals because of fear of failure or loss -- instead we should only seek to cloak ourselves in the joy of the attempt and the beauty in having the sense to try.
On the flip side, I also see this work as a portrait of a man who is centered on his fear. Every action, every emotion, every relationship is spent digging further and further away from failure. So in a sense, the picture could be seen as a film about the process by which a person can channel their fear, use their fear -- even relentlessly, in a way that could only spark the greatest of success. At the same time, such vigor also promotes a certain destructiveness apparent in Mr. Petit's self-justifying moral ambiguity, particularly on the topic of the intimate relationships that he builds and abruptly abandons at the close of the picture.
While not a life changing film, it is certainly a life a affirming work. I highly suggest it for anyone who has ever tried to "live the dream" as it were, or for those that may need a swift kick of inspiration to get them back on that horse.
There is something to be said of the idea that some lives are stories that are meant to be told -- Man on Wire is certainly one of them.
Man on Wire is currently playing in NYC and will begin rolling out nationally on Aug 8.