It happened a little over 24 years ago, and if you were around, you might have met the occasion with emotions ranging from bemusement to indifference to exhilaration.
If you could see into the future, you may well have regarded the event with more than casual curiosity. On that day, Aug. 7, 1974, people in lower Manhattan looked up to see a human creature walk back and forth on an invisible wire suspended between the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
Back and forth, back and forth in a balletic display of audacious brilliance. More than 45 minutes. How did this petite Frenchman named Philippe Petit get past a bastion of security guards? Surely, such a daring feat must have taken months, if not years of planning. What made Petit want to do it? What force residing in his showboating psyche impelled him to risk his life?
‘Man on Wire’
DIRECTED BY James Marsh, based on source material by Philippe Petit
STARRING Philippe Petit, Annie Alix, Jean-Louis Blondeau and Mark Lewis
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
In “Man on Wire,” director James Marsh has fashioned a mesmerizing story culminating in the aerial coup. It is presented to us not as some stodgy document, but as a heist-adventure replete with a pulsating musical score, vintage footage and some re-enactments.
Building a dream
We meet Petit, who confesses that he was seized with ecstasy when he first saw drawings of the edifice while he was in the dentist’s office. From that day on, he was on a mission, punctuating his dream with balancing acts in Paris and over the Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia. Watching these feats is a treat, a kind of prologue to the master and main exercise in what would come to pass one day in lower Manhattan.
Petit could not do it alone. He needed accomplices, people who would forge false IDs, new friends who would pose as producers and camera operators when the impostor showed up as a journalist doing a story on the fabulous towers. Someone had to do some figuring about the wind shifts that could have brought the dream to a tragic end. We meet Philippe’s lover and one of his friends, Jean-Louis Blondeau, who weeps when he recalls that wondrous day when his friend risked death. It was not a stunt but an artistic endeavor, and as realized, a thing of ineffable beauty.
Talk about an instant high that took more than an instant to mount. We share the thrills and savor the memories. If we had known then how fate would intercede on the towers’ permanence. Obviously, that day is in the back of our minds as we watch the story evolve.
In a stroke of creative good taste, we see or hear nothing of 9/11. The eeriest shots are those of the edifice in its initial stages before the erection of the girders. Ground zero before Ground Zero. As we gaze at the barren ground, at that time a spot of happy, architectural anticipation, we get a chill from a scene resembling the remnants of ruin three decades later.
But enough of that.
“Man on Wire” is a breathtakingly poetic experience, and as it plays out here, the story is idyllic. You will never forget that shot from below of Petit seemingly walking on air. If only we had been there. “Man on Wire” is a work of magic. No wonder it took Sundance prizes as audience favorite and best documentary.