Friday, March 13, 2009

Man on Wire

I’m deathly afraid of heights and approached Man on Wire with a certain trepidation. Was I going to be able to sit through a documentary about a man who thrives on walking tight-ropes spanning ridiculously high expanses, without any safety nets?

Well, I made it through it and those heights really were ridiculous. The movie was also ridiculously entertaining.

Man on Wire has a ghostly quality. For the second movie in the row in the Cinema 100 series, the Twin Towers play a role. In Taxi to the Dark Side, their destruction started a terrible slide into a Hell on Earth. In Man on Wire, their construction starts a man down a path toward his dreams, his destiny. The Twin Towers loom large throughout the movie. It’s hard to image they are really gone.

Philippe Petit, a French acrobat, experienced the happiest day of his life when he noticed an advertisement announcing the construction of the World Trade Center in New York City. His life of juggling and street performing and wire walking had so far been unsatisfying, aimless. Now, this promised new structure, just over the horizon, gave his life purpose.

To him, two flat-topped, equally high towers nicely spaced apart – And did I say very, very high? – offered the perfect challenge to a high-wire performer. Now, if he can just prepare himself for the task and figure out some way to rig a wire between the buildings, once they’re built.

The greatest achievement of Man on Wire is that – through the use of period footage and photographs, interviews with Petit and others involved, and beautifully incorporated recreations – it becomes as suspenseful and engaging as any movie you’ll ever see.

Like a great thriller or heist movie, we follow Petit through all of the preparations. We are with him during all the sleepless nights narrowly avoiding port authority police. We learn just how one goes about rigging a wire between two terrifyingly high structures. We learn enough to try it ourselves, although trying this at home is not advisable.

Before his big walk, we get to witness Petit’s warm-up acts. Almost as dazzling – and every bit as dangerous – are his walks between the towers of Notre Dame and between the supports of Sydney Harbor Bridge. I suppose “walks” doesn’t really describe what he does though. It’s more like Gene Kelley dancing down a very narrow street, occasionally pausing to stretch out and take a nap.

Yes, Petit is fearless on a wire and when cops inevitably turn up to watch his performances he is also quite cocky. He taunts them, teases them, and twirls about just out of reach. He drives them mad while he amazes them with his virtuosity and daring.

The big moment of course comes on August 7, 1974 when he realizes his dream, for a breathtaking 45 minutes and eight round trips between the towers – punctuated by a few cat-naps. It’s spellbinding. It’s magical. You’ll have to see it to believe it. Petit is happy as a kid when it’s over, like a man whose life is finally complete.

His feat makes me tremble. At any moment during those 45 minutes, if he’d allowed his concentration to flag for even an instant. Oh man. I can’t even think about it.

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