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Movie Review: MAN ON WIRE (2008)

Written by Christopher Beaubien • August 13, 2008 • Start the Discussion!


Watch His Step!

Watching a great movie that clicks in all of the right places assures me that there is harmony in the universe. It is like marveling at a perfectly symmetrical design like the Eiffel Tower or a spider web. Life is really random chaos with no point. It is a relief that our human intellect stubbornly seeks and finds safety, reason and occasional serendipity in the face of an abyss. Without a sound mind, sanity is lost. To perform well, the struggle between genius and madness is universal. The endeavor of Philippe Petit is one of the most memorable…and balanced.

The documentary Man on Wire recounts a French tightrope walker’s obsession to tread while suspended between the void of the World Trade Center Towers 1,368 feet from the ground. That’s the height of 228 six-foot men. Having trained for most of his life to perform this feat, he masterminded a plot with an adventurous team of experts and thrill-seekers to infiltrate the towers’ rooftops to get the wire across them. The illegal operation was as dangerous and complex as a robbing a heavily guarded infrastructure like in Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1954) or, if you haven’t seen that one, Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake of Ocean’s Eleven. My only complaint about the break-in was that they didn’t pack a video camera to film the spectacle from such an awesome perspective view.

The scenes of the controversial incursion are narrated by the present interviewees while documented footage and dramatically staged footage bring us intimately to experience it. The black-and-white footage (always timeless) is integrated so well that documentary and the fictional realization become seamless. The director James Marsh has made an exceptional thriller and a visual poem about great dreamers whose vision threaten to capsize them unless they rise to act upon their desires.

This is a superb follow-up to Marsh’s 2006 directorial debut titled The King, a chilling docudrama about an estranged son (Gael Garcí­a Bernal) who goes to depraved lengths to integrate himself into the new family of his born-again father (William Hurt – “How does that feel?”). The King was between Julia Kwan’s Eve and the Firehorse and John Hillcoat’s The Proposition on my Best Films of 2006 list. This year, Marsh is almost neck-to-neck with magician/filmmaker Errol Morris who too has made another invaluable documentary called Standard Operating Procedure.

Philippe Petit is a charismatic and animated character in his own right. “I have this childlike rebellion against those who say that I can’t do something, which is something that I felt very early in my life. I have more wisdom now than I did at the time, but when most of the world tells you that you cannot do something, what an incentive to prove them wrong.” Before this daunting venture, he had walked between Notre Dame and the Sydney Harbour Bridge where some photographs taken look like he is floating in the sky.

One of Petit’s memories — and certainly the most loveliest — involves Annie Allix, his then-girlfriend: They both walk a wire suspended a few feet from his backyard together; relying on one another to gracefully cross this delicate bridge suspended in the midair. The romantic in me was immensely moved by the sight. Allix then mused, “We both look like we’re plotting our next mischief”.

Reflecting on Petit’s stunt above the World Trade Center, no mention in the film is made about the infamous tragedy that took place twenty-seven years after the fact. There is footage early in the film that depicts the building of the World Trade Center which looks hauntingly like Ground Zero today. What an irony, considering the still-troubled political climate a few years ago in New York (re: Freedom Fries) that in the early 1970s; New Yorkers looked agape and in wonder at a Frenchman’s daring.

The other star of this film is the composer Michael Nyman (The Piano, 1993), one of most exceptional and prolific in the past few decades. He is so distinctive that Hollywood studios unwisely dilute his work or stay away from him altogether. Thankfully his collaboration with such cinema rebels like Peter Greenaway, Jane Champion, and Michael Winterbottom have contributed richly to celluloid.

man_wire5His score for Man on Wire is an accumulation of reworked film scores he has done. Nyman loyalists will recognize segments from “Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepards” (The Draughtsman’s Contract, 1982), “Sheep and Tides” (Drowning By Numbers, 1988), “Time Lapse” (A Zed and Two Noughts, 1985), and “Stroking, Synchronizing” (Water Dances, 1985). The last time I heard Nyman tracks incorporated in a motion picture was two years ago. The film in question was Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shanty: A Cock and Bull Story (2006), which also made my list of Best Films that year.


What an inspiration it is to play Nyman’s “Memorial” from Peter Greenaway’s masterpiece The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover over Petit’s highest walk! How fitting that it was Nyman’s music that Petit actually practiced his wire act in his backyard to. I often listen to Nyman’s jazzy scores when I illustrate. Nyman’s Baroque-affected work is so locomotive and minacious that it stirs up the most mishandled of hearts. “(Nyman) has one foot in the 1600s and the other in contemporary times”. You can never go wrong overlaying a Nyman piece over your own movie (I should know!). Nyman has recently held an exhibition of his photography work and influences called Sublime with the assistance of the design firm Volumina.

“Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds”

More Music by Michael Nyman:

On August 7, 1974, Petit realized his dream and conquered the Twin Towers. His stunt was split between potential suicide and artistic liberation. Petit claims he was at peace with the thought of dying that day should he have slipped. His actions suggest that a life lived without the realization of one’s most radical aspirations is a moot one. We only get one trip around so we might as well put aside trivial safety measures and make the best of it.

I related with Petit’s romanticism and his need to dream boldly. I was cheered by the extreme measures and unapologetic grand gestures he made to realize the unthinkable. To walk across the clouds. Take a moment and ask yourself if you would actually like to perform a similar feat? Having gone up the Empire State Building to scream out loud from the top of the world, over the exquisite yearning to truly live. It was a minor gesture in the same vein. I was in complete sympathy with Petit when he accepted an invitation by a slender brunette to make love to her after having achieved his death-defying stunt. If it’s hard to top, it’s best to go down softly.

MAN ON WIRE (2008) Trailer


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