“If I die, what a beautiful death!”
In 2009, James Marsh’s superb film Man on Wire won Best Documentary at the Oscars. In any other year, I would have been happy, but I must admit this win was tinged with sadness for me, because it beat Encounters at the End of the World. Yet general consensus quietly agrees that the latter was included predominantly because Werner Herzog’s previous documentary, Grizzly Man, had failed to even secure a nomination in 2006, and this was the Academy’s way of putting right an egregious wrong. So, as biased as I am towards Herzog, whose films have (sadly) yet to be picked out of the bag, even I must concede that if he had to lose out (again) at the Oscars, at least he lost out to a worthy opponent – and, to be honest, I doubt that the director himself actually cares at all. Man on Wire is fantastic, make no mistake – an exhilarating memoir disguised as a heist film, it gathers you up and pulls you into Phillipe Petit’s obsessed world until, finally, you are rewarded with an unforgettable moment: it’s a moment of lunacy, undoubtedly, but it’s also beautiful, serene, magical.
Based on a book by Petit, Man on Wire recounts the Frenchman’s efforts to achieve his dream – to walk along a tight rope between the Twin Towers in New York. It was an obsession that haunted him from the moment he first discovered the skyscrapers were being built in the early 1960s. It wouldn’t be until 1974 that he would finally have the opportunity, carrying out the “artistic crime of the century” with the help of a band of people who had been caught up in his wake and dragged along for this delirious ride.
The film’s style brings to mind that of acclaimed documentary maker Errol Morris, combining the traditional talking heads – a perfunctory inclusion that generally lacks visual dynamism – with monochrome re-enactments. Yet Petit in particular is such an engaging character that even his interview segments are filled with excitement and vitality – he is spry and hyperactive, expressive with not just his face but his whole body. It’s easy to see how he persuaded the motley crew of friends, associates, and virtual strangers to help him on what could so easily have been a suicide mission. The re-enactments, in contrast, are muted in colour and slightly grainy, yet no less engaging: Marsh cleverly creates his heist caper here, as Petit recalls the almost slapstick manner by which they broke into the Twin Towers, with their vast quantities of rigging and equipment. Were it not for the reiteration of his story by his co-conspirators, it would be easy to dismiss his version of events as fanciful and highly exaggerated: having to hide under tarpaulin while the security guards smoked cigarettes, the near-misses and ridiculous situations they managed to get themselves into. The good humour and often hilarious descriptions mask, or at least undermine, the criminality of their actions, not to mention the hugely dangerous potential of his dream, so that Man on Wire remains eternally optimistic and invigorating.
Alongside these talking head interviews and re-enactment segments, Marsh’s film undoubtedly benefits from an impressive wealth of existing footage of Petit’s various exploits. From his jaunt across the Sydney Harbour bridge, to small, tender moments shared between friends, the combination of photos and film footage nostalgically capture the decade just as they capture the closeness of this group of friends. They are an inviting bunch; if there were fights and disagreements, they are hidden away – what matters, it is implied, was the fun. For this period of time, the group lived, breathed, slept and dreamed Petit’s dream; they vicariously lived his obsession, which he had infected each and every one of them with. And, in the end, it was his life at risk, but they all reaped the rewards of his actions, as they helped him achieve something that was insane, of course, but somehow life-changing for them all. Just listening to his former girlfriend as she recalls watching him from the streets below, and you get the sense that there was something utterly profound about his actions; this was an experience shared by friends and strangers alike, one that would never be forgotten. Yet there is a somewhat bittersweet element here, emphasised in the film’s final moments as the group discuss what happened after they had finally achieved Petit’s dream. After all those years of planning, the obsessive detailing and meticulous (or not) preparation, what is left afterwards? It’s a poignant end to a beautiful, and ultimately very human film.