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Philippe Petit’s walk among the clouds
by Molly Templeton
MAN ON WIRE: Directed by James Marsh. Based on the book To Reach the Clouds by Philippe Petit. Cinematography, Igor Martinovic. Editor, Jinx Godfrey. Music, Michael Nyman & J. Ralph. Magnolia Pictures, 2008. PG-13. 94 minutes.
You only get one magical first time to hear about how it came to be that on August 7, 1974, 24-year-old Philippe Petit stepped out on a wire strung between the towers of the World Trade Center. For me, that first time was Petit’s 2002 book To Reach the Clouds; for many, you lucky souls, that first time comes with Man On Wire, James Marsh’s fantastic new film based on Petit’s book.
Marsh (The King) dives headlong into the story, beginning on the day of “le coup,” as the participants called it, before looping back around to the planning stages or to Petit’s previous clandestine wire acts: crossing between the towers of Notre Dame cathedral and between two pylons of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Those were beautiful, inspired, playful performances; the WTC walk was Petit’s obsession.
Man On Wire chronicles Petit’s passion for conquering the buildings, which he first saw in a magazine at the age of 17, and the planning he and an international group of conspirators employed to get the necessary equipment to the top of what was then the highest building in the world. It is a heist, an unmatchable prank and an act of incredible beauty that Petit and his friends pull off. Incredibly, mischievously and cleverly, Marsh’s film expresses the exuberant creative spirit of this compact, energetic Frenchman not just through the commentary of Petit and his collaborators, but in the way Marsh presents the story. An animated, toylike airplane flies across the globe; Petit and the WTC share a split-screen as they grow up; quirky, snappy re-enactments fill in the gaps when there are no photographs or footage to illustrate a moment. In one of the best of these visions, stars whoosh slowly by as figures atop the WTC rig up the wire that Petit will cross come daybreak. It’s dreamlike and mesmerizing, and when the film shifts to still images of Petit on the wire, cut with the awed recollections of those who watched, it’s like waking up to find that the dream is real. Even the New York cops who took Petit in after his skywalk are caught up in the magic; as one says, you couldn’t really call him a tightrope walker out there. He danced. And more than 30 years later, recounting that dance brings two of Petit’s team to tears — and, in Marsh’s talented hands, makes for a thrilling, delightful story, a poignant reminder of a different time and a most compelling case for living each day “like a work of art.” It’s a tough charge; thankfully, people like Petit are up to it.
Man On Wire opens Friday, Sept. 19, at the Bijou.