Documentary of daring

James Marsh’s movie on Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire act between the World Trade Centers

Man on Wire
Directed by James Marsh. Rated PG-13.
Rated 5.0

Philippe Petit is a fascinating fellow.

He is, of course, the French guy who, one summer morning in 1974, walked and danced and generally cavorted on an improvised high wire strung between the newly constructed towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

That one-of-a-kind event is almost endlessly fascinating in its own right, and it provides the central narrative thread in James Marsh’s dazzling and wonderfully intricate film portrait of Petit. With Marsh’s multivalenced approach, Petit and his various collaborators all become figures of unusual interest. The film is a quietly astonishing blend of disparate genres—documentary compilation, bio-pic, caper movie, semi-cubist portrait, docudrama.

Marsh weaves the details and chronology of Petit’s life story into a gradually unfolding account of his Twin Towers feat. The resulting mixture of performance footage, home movies, recreated scenes, archival footage, talking heads and newsreel and TV clips constitutes something of a cinematic high-wire exploit for us as well.

The stories of Petit’s enabling friends and assistants reflect variously and incisively on the deep-seated attractiveness and inspirational appeal of Petit’s ingenious and extravagant daring. Annie Allix, his ex-wife, and Jean-Louis Blondeau, the old friend and stoically reflective co-author of Petit’s great feat, are particularly incisive witnesses to the conflicted emotions and larger-than-life paradoxes at the heart of Petit’s special genius.

Petit himself emerges as intriguingly adventurous, a charming visionary and gifted performer, possessed of daring and guile that make him irresistibly attractive while setting him apart from friends, lovers, helpers and almost everyone else as well.

Marsh’s concluding shot of Petit shows him in profile, a lithe middle-aged man working out on a backyard tightrope. He walks that more recent wire looking calm and direct for the most part, but taking one intent glance, with hints of both determination and defiance, toward the heavens as he moves along.