There's a beautiful moment in “Man on Wire” when Philippe Petit sets out on his stroll between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. One of Erik Satie's piano pieces echoes as Petit steps onto the inches-wide cable separating him from death a quarter-mile below. It's the perfect sound for this breathtaking advance: Both men were Frenchmen with puckish humor, pranksters capable in rare moments of creating simple, profound beauty.
If you're under 40, you probably won't remember the sensation Petit caused on Aug. 7, 1974. (His national notoriety lasted only a day, in any case: Richard Nixon resigned the presidency the following evening.) Director James Marsh, who was an elementary schooler when Petit dazzled the residents of lower Manhattan, approaches this subject with a childlike sense of wonder in his documentary, delighting in the skulduggery behind the event.
He provides almost no back story about the other participants or Petit himself. “There is no ‘why,'” says the redheaded hero, who even at 59 has the mischievous face of an unreformed Pinocchio. “I leave that to the psychologists.” We don't learn, for example, how he financed his daredevilry (not a serious issue) or much of what happened to him or his cohorts after the event – a bigger drawback, as his devoted girlfriend and closest collaborator split with Petit once fame overtook him. There is a “why” to that side of the story, but it doesn't interest Marsh.
He focuses almost exclusively on the walk itself and the people involved, and their personalities emerge a bit as they reminisce. Jean-Louis Blondeau is the careful tactician, unwilling to let Petit proceed with “le coup” until the plan is secure. Annie Allix is the adoring but open-eyed lover, who considers Petit as much of an artist as a painter or sculptor. The rest, from a pot-smoking American hippie to an anything-goes Australian, contribute details.
Marsh borrows cleverly from the style of Oscar-winner Errol Morris, blending black-and-white re-creations with grainy real footage from 1974. We see the actual collaborators pose as foreign journalists doing an article on WTC construction, so they can scout places to put equipment. Then we see actors playing the impish Petit and crew, scurrying around construction sites in silhouette, sneaking past guards to shoot the arrow that sends the wire from one tower to another.
When we finally see footage of Petit making multiple crossings, even lying down on the wire, we're enchanted. The walk ennobled the new WTC, which many people considered an obtrusive blot on the New York skyline.
Petit went on to many more tower walks and raised the bar for funambulists, as they're called. Karl Wallenda, the most famous wire-walker before Petit, plunged to death four years later in high winds; he had been crossing between the two towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at age 73.
Wallenda once said, “Life is being on the wire; everything else is just waiting.” This film makes that motto ring true.