Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008): UK, USA

Reviewed by Byron Potau.  Viewed at the LA International Film Festival.

Man on Wire

It is the unique documentary that can put us on the edge of our seat even though we know what happens in the end.  We already know that tightrope walker Phillipe Petit has walked a wire between the two World Trade Center towers and obviously survived.  What we want to know here is what were the steps taken to get to there.  Director James Marsh’s Man on Wire takes us inside one of the greatest and most dangerous acts in history, and does so in a way as to give us the full experience as if we were in on it from the very conception of the idea.

The film chronicles the charming Frenchman, Petit, and the team he assembled to help him gain access to the towers, while informing us as well on Petit’s history.  We see footage of Petit’s warm up performances with the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia.  There are interviews with Petit, his ex-wife, his friends that helped him, and inside men that assisted as well.
The film has the appearance of a political thriller or a heist, showing the time and location, black and white footage mixed with color home movies, reenactments of various stages of planning and bypassing security, still photographs, and stock footage.  The film is itself a hire wire act, a credit to editor Jinx Godfrey, building tension until the amazing, breathtaking act is carried out.  Along the way there is plenty of anecdotal humor to keep the audience amused.

Throughout the film there is an underlying sense of melancholy as we look upon the towers from their construction to their completion knowing their fate.  At their inception the site looks eerily as it did at their demise and we are too well aware of the last time “North” and “South” tower were indicated to us with a time stamp.  Petit’s act is one more way of honoring the towers that have left a void in the New York Skyline.

It would seem irresponsible to place Man on Wire among the greatest documentaries ever without first letting it stand the test of time and yet, that is its rightful place.  It is thoroughly engaging and expertly crafted, and when it is all over you only wish there could have been more.  It is already a winner of the Audience Award and Grand Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival and will undoubtedly have more awards in its future including an Oscar.

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