Watching the documentary “Man on Wire” is nerve-wracking, even though its protagonist, Philippe Petit, helps tell the tale of his crossing of the Twin Towers in 1974. It seems like an impossible feat, and yet he did it! The documentary is incredibly artful — there is a black-and-white re-enactment that doesn’t feel like one, archival footage is woven in, and the people involved are able to share vivid recollections. The audacity of the wire act also seemed to shatter Petit’s relationships with his friends and his longtime girlfriend, as though once he had touched the sky and reached a new level of fame, he was no longer the same person.
Watching footage of Petit walking on wires is akin to watching a ballet dancer. His movements are graceful and purposeful, yet he makes it look almost effortless. Before he strung a wire between the World Trade Center towers, he also walked between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and between towers on the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia, which the film includes. Petit has a lively demeanor, and he was able to draw in the kinds of insouciant acquaintances who didn’t mind being arrested for helping him set up his feats. He reminded me of my friend Mark, who’s a bit wild yet determined.
I wondered how Petit could afford his adventures — after all, it seemed that his profession at the time was street performer, but maybe that’s something that the French government subsidizes. In one of the special features, he talks about the Sydney crossing, in which he essentially bartered a performance at a wire manufacturer in exchange for the wire that he needed. I suppose luck favors the bold, and it especially favored Petit.
Because the Twin Towers are no longer standing, there’s a certain poignancy to watching Petit scout out the buildings while they were under construction and sneak into them. The film never mentions September 11, 2001, but as a viewer, I felt keenly aware of the juxtaposition between the relative innocence of 1974 and the hyper-vigilance of now. The re-enactment of “Le Coup” includes the fake IDs and papers that Petit and his accomplices present to the guards. Although there was security (on both towers, guards nearly foil the plans), Petit and his accomplices evaded capture until he was on the wire on the morning.
The film’s title comes from the police report from Petit’s arrest in New York: under the reason for the complaint, it reads in capital letters, “MAN ON WIRE.” I’m sure the police officers were at a loss for how to treat Petit. As he observes, his wire acts are beautiful and harmless. The film captures his energy and the fear that surrounded his friends as he attempted the boldest feat of his lifetime. Even in hindsight, it made me tense with worry and concern. I couldn’t live my life on such an edge, but it’s exhilirating to witness a man who does.