Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Man on Wire

Man on Wire is as fitting a eulogy for the World Trade Center towers as one can imagine. It documents Philippe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between the two buildings through a combination of talking head interviews, archival footage and photographs, and subtly made recreations of the events leading up to his performance. In telling the tale of how Petit and his crew managed to sneak into both towers and pull of the stunt, it mirrors something of a bank-heist story or even (ahem) a depiction of the preparations for a terrorist attack. Because the group is engaged in an illegal activity, they must case the buildings, create scale-model replications of the rooftops to craft their plans, and rehearse the act in the safety of a rural hideout before enacting it. Director James Marsh wisely structures the film to this familiar paradigm, introducing his cast of characters in intimidating, shadowy ways and bestowing upon them archetypal nicknames like, "The Australian," and, "The Inside Man." It's easy to get swept away by the film's heightened reality (led in no small part by the interviews with the charismatic, impassioned Petit) and, as such, Man on Wire pulls off the always appealing feat of generating a tremendous amount of suspense about events whose outcome is known to the viewer.

A great deal of this feat is accomplished through the film's wondrous editing. This is an expertly paced film, moving effortlessly through time as the conspirators recall their individual parts in the deed and concurrently recount their personal histories that led them to participate in this insane stunt. Like any heist crew, their motivations and personalities are varied, each coming to the project for their own purposes, and the film reveals just enough to satisfy for each of them. (I'm struggling not to use the words "balance" or "juggle" here.) But where the film shines is in the amount of space it provides for the tightrope walk itself. Here, Man on Wire changes from the tightly constructed narrative template of a heist film to something more akin to the religious sensation of the mothership landing in Close Encounters. After racing to this moment, the film stops in its tracks, staring slack-jawed at the scene. The reverence is certainly appropriate. As we can see from the archival footage and photographs, Petit, at times, appears to be walking on thin air. It's gorgeous.

The film is powerful enough on its own terms that it would be a crackling yarn of youthful exuberance and showmanship absent any other events, but knowing the eventual fate of the World Trade Center towers provides an additional weight to the film. To my memory, the film never even brings up 9/11, but it's hard to miss the the parallels between Petit and the men who eventually destroyed these buildings. Both see the buildings as a symbol of something larger than themselves and have a selfish, personal desire to conquer the structure. And they all used devious, illegal acts to impose their personal narratives upon the towers, used the majesty of the buildings to shape the world to their own ends. Even the reaction from the American people is similar; after pulling off his tightrope walk, Petit is bombarded with demands to know why he's done what he's done. And yet, the difference between the two groups is stark. Where the terrorists sought to destroy, Petit is an artist. Selfish as he may be, he is always looking to create something. And what he does create is a magnificent spectacle, something that even the police who apprehend him can't help but be moved by. It is by emphasizing this parallel through its heist-movie structure that Man on Wire brings about feelings of closure, at least with regard to the New York city skyline. It is comforting and hopeful to remember a time when the buildings stood for a sense of wonder and achievement rather than tragedy, a time when people conspired to walk on the air between the buildings rather than cause others to fall from them.