Thursday, July 24, 2008

Review - Man on Wire

It's summer, and for us filmgoers that means the cinemas are full of movies that have spent millions of dollars to dazzle our eyes; but for all of the CGI magic these movies have to offer, I doubt they'll be able to come up with anything as breathtaking as the thirty year-old photographs that appear in James Marsh's
Man on Wire. They show a man walking across a tightrope – nothing unusual there, you might think – but this tightrope is strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, over 1,300 feet above the New York streets. The man in the photo is Philippe Petit, and on August 7th 1974, he spent 45 minutes walking between these buildings, crossing his dangerous path eight times, and at one point he even lay down on the wire, casually waving to the dumbstruck masses below. It was an act of enormous bravery, bravado and skill – a once-in-a-lifetime achievement that stunned the world – and the highest compliment that I can pay Man on Wire is to say it completely does justice to Petit's story.

What kind of man would even dream about such a thing, let alone devote six years of his life to pulling it off? Well, Philippe Petit is clearly no ordinary individual. A garrulous, cocky, charming character, he is a wonderful interview subject. He relays his adventures in an excitable manner, wildly gesticulating and jumping out of his seat to recall a particular incident from behind a curtain. How, we might wonder, did he ever stay still long enough to walk across a wire? But when Philippe steps onto the taut rope he undergoes a startling transformation; he becomes eerily calm and almost unnaturally focused, confidently planting one foot in front of another in a situation where the slightest misjudgement can be fatal. As a teenager, Petit had been working as a juggler and acrobat on the streets of Paris, but the high wire was his calling, and before his most famous feat, he had already performed similarly spectacular stunts between the spires of the Notre Dame cathedral and above Sydney Harbour Bridge. On each occasion he returned to earth to the adulation of amazed bystanders, and the slightly less enamoured long arm of the law.

The World Trade Centre's two skyscrapers hadn't even been built when Petit was involved in these acts, but as soon as he saw a newspaper story detailing their construction, he felt they had been designed for him alone, they were his destiny. He persuaded some close friends to assist him as he prepared for his greatest challenge, and as Marsh lays out the various hurdles and twists that their plot involved,
Man on Wire develops with the pace and excitement of a thriller. Marsh is coming off the back of a drama – 2005's intriguing if muddled The King – and his debut film Wisconsin Death Trip was a documentary that contained a number of stylistic tricks more associated with fictional movies. In Man on Wire, Marsh blends various disparate elements to create a mesmerising whole. Much of the picture consists of conventional talking-head clips with Petit's friends and collaborators, all of whom provide candid and often funny anecdotes, while Marsh also utilises cleverly filmed reconstructions and Petit's invaluable home movie footage, all of which is scored to selected works by Michael Nyman.

The result is a film that flows brilliantly, never dropping a stitch as it shifts modes and tones, and it has the rare distinction of being a picture that can generate considerable tension even as we know how the story will end. The present-day interviews reveal to us that everyone involved survived the experience and is happy to discuss it, but I still felt an overwhelming sense of nervousness as the climactic wire-walk drew closer, a tightening of the chest as Petit prepared to take his leap of faith, and a remarkable feeling of exhilaration when it was over. All we see of the incident itself is a handful of photos, but that's enough to bring home the magnitude of it. Petit's high-wire act above Manhattan remains one of the greatest acts of individual courage and imagination imaginable, an example of what human beings can achieve when we reach for the stars, and when Petit's close friend Jean-Louis Blondeau and former lover Annie Allix are moved to tears by their recollections, it's hard not to be equally touched by the extraordinary nature of the tale they're describing.

As well as being one of the most gripping, emotionally involving films of the year,
Man on Wire is a picture that harkens back to what now seems a more innocent time. "I personally figured I was watching something somebody else would never see again in the world" says one of the New York cops who arrested Petit when he finally returned to terra firma, and of course he's right, particularly when you consider the stage for Petit's performance no longer exists. It is impossible to see images of the World Trade Centre now without being reminded of 9/11, but aside from one photograph – in which a plane passes perilously close to Petit as he stands between the buildings – Marsh doesn't references the attacks. In fact, he seems determined to avoid any mention of them, as they have no part to play in Petit's story, and one of the joys of this fantastic, transcendent documentary is that it allows us to remember the towers as they once stood, and to recall the part they played in allowing an ambitious young Frenchman to walk on air.