‘Man on Wire’ movie review: Philippe Petit walks a tightrope between the Twin Towers

If James Marsh’s Man on Wire feels like a straightforward and modestly-produced BBC doc now and then, it’s because yeah, it mostly is. But when you have a subject this good you don’t need much documentary flair: you just stand back and let the story tell itself. That’s exactly what Marsh does here, and the results are utterly fascinating from the word go.

Maybe you’re old enough to remember Phillipe Petit’s ‘artistic crime of the century’, or maybe you’ve previously read about it. For whatever reason, I had never heard about it, even in the wake of 9/11, until reading advance coverage of Marsh’s doc. 

On August 7, 1974, Petit illegally climbed atop the World Trade Center in New York City, strung a wire across the top of the twin towers, and spent 45 minutes dancing between them.

Petit was a French tightrope walker and street performer who had seen plans for the WTC – at the time, the highest proposed buildings in the world – at a young age and decided he would walk between them; at age 24, not long after the towers were constructed, he accomplished the feat. 

To hear Petit explain it, it makes sense in a weird kind of way: he saw the towers, drew a line with a pencil between them, and held that as his ultimate goal, perhaps the way a mountain climber views Everest.

Man on Wire tells Petit’s incredible tale, and lets Petit tell it himself a good portion of the time. Also on hand are ex-lover Annie Allix and Petit’s friends and compatriots, both in France and in New York, those who helped him plan and execute the walk.

Marsh recounts Petit’s preparations, which included practice runs for the twin towers with walks over the cathedral at Notre Dame and at Australia’s Sydney Harbour Bridge. 

And then he delves into the WTC walk, covering each minute detail with a precision rarely seen; no footage exists of Petit walking across the twin towers, but the storytelling here is so good you won’t even notice.

Soundtrack – which consists of a number of Michael Nyman tracks recycled from Peter Greenaway films – perfectly suits the material, adding to the sense of awe and wonder.

You rarely see a film like this among contemporary docs, outside of the work of Ken Burns or Errol Morris; there’s almost always interference from the filmmakers. But Man on Wire is just about a perfect documentary, and a story well-worth seeking out.

Man on Wire won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at last year’s Academy Awards. Also see: The Man Who Skied Down Everest, a similar story (though a less successful documentary) that also won the Oscar, back in 1976.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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