Now that enough time has passed for movies about the World Trade Centre to be tinged with nostalgia rather than hysteria or pathos, the first post-post-9/11 movie is an intriguing docu-drama about high-wire walker Philippe Petit, who staged one of the most outrageous stunts in modern urban history. Intercutting between Petit remembering the events now and an actor (Paul McGill) recreating them in the past, Man on Wire tells the story of Petit’s 1974 riveting and illegal high-wire walk between the Twin Towers, 1,300 feet from the ground.
Filmmaker James Marsh seems equally confident making documentaries and dramatised films, having even approached Elvis from both angles: the documentary The Burger and the King and the fiction drama The King with Gael GarcíÂa Bernal. However, where his 1999 film Wisconsin Death Trip perfectly mixed drama and documentary, Man on Wire is not quite so successful and it seems like two different films are vying for attention in the same space. The suspense of drama doesn’t quite work here as the scenes of Petit in the present assuage any worry that he might not survive his architectural heist.
That said, it’s easy to see why the director was torn between the two approaches. The real Petit is an affable and engaging character who is obviously perfectly happy to tell his tale one more time while the dramatised Petit is reminiscent of a young Malcolm McDowell, complete with rakish insouciant charm. Both strands of the movie have a lot to offer, even if they don’t quite fit together. The straight-to-camera interviews with Petit and his associates reveal a variety of characters whose lives have irrevocably been changed by the event, mainly on the personal level, as the original gathering of Petit’s ‘team’ both forged and broke friendships. These relationships vary from touching to acerbic in the dramatised part and the film excellently conveys the feeling of lost youth of all these characters, a youth that remains forever crystallised in this news-making event.
The director films the dramatised scenes on a grainier stock with washed-out colours, using this as visual shorthand for a decade marked by the end of hippy subculture. When plot points approach a mythic quality, Marsh treats them like scenes from a fairy tale – the night before the event, shot in high-contrast monochromatic chiaroscuro with unconvincing clouds obscuring our vision, feels like an out-take from a Guy Maddin film – or the rehearsal for a production of The Wizard of Oz. The latter in particular seems to have inspired the sequence in which the real-life Petit moves back and forth from behind a curtain as he relates and re-enacts the incident where he hid from a security guard by following him around a pillar like a character in a 1930s screwball comedy.
Perhaps for American audiences Petit’s stunt is the second most famous thing to have happened to the World Trade Centre – indeed the cover of ‘The New Yorker’ on September 11th 2006 – had a silhouette of Petit on a wire but no buildings or landscape around him; the WTC represented by its absence. For international audiences though, the recreation of the stunt joins a distinguished group of comedies / dramas which use the high-rise building for dramatic potential from Safety Last to Die Hard.
As Petit’s life became defined in retrospect by this one act, we shouldn’t be surprised that the film should only cover it up to that point – but it’s frustrating that the documentary doesn’t tell us what happened next. A coda to his release from brief incarceration sees the tight-rope walker sleep with a fan to celebrate the joy of being alive. We can only speculate as to how the man responsible for this stunning act of aesthetic terrorism lived for the following three decades.
Perhaps this gap in the narrative, which could have been remedied by some on-screen text before the credits rolled, is meant to be as exasperating to the audience as the antics of the man himself were to the authorities at the time. It is, however, another element of the film that prevents it from being a classic. But while the film may be flawed, the combination of aspiration, humanity and courage in Man on Wire make its single iconographic stunt a worthy and welcome alternative to the interminable summer blockbusters that show characters forgettably defying gravity in almost every scene.