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Man on Wire
One of the nominated documentaries for this year’s Oscar is “Man on Wire,” the story of Philippe Petit, the man who walked a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. That accomplishment – 1,350 feet in the air – is so far beyond any normal life’s work that we have to know just what it is that compels Mr. Petit to do it. And let me say first that I have a great fear of heights; even looking down a CGI skyscraper in a film like “Batman,” say, makes my legs turn to jelly. But I’m fascinated by people who live to do something so dangerous, so mad, so beautiful.
“Man on Wire” uses old family footage to show us that even as a child Mr. Petit loved to do dangerous things; he was a juggler, he built himself small tightropes in fields and insisted on doing more and more dangerous stunts. By the time he was an adult he had walked from one bell tower to the other at Paris’s Cathedral of Notre Dame, then on to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and then – then one day at the dentist’s office he saw that the twin towers of the World Trade Center were going to be the tallest buildings in the world. He insisted that when they were finished he would walk from one to the other.
He assembled the most motley crew imaginable – a pot-head musician, an executive at an office inside one of the towers – and his girlfriend and a close friend who had been with him earlier. There were enormous technical difficulties with their plan: first they had to bring almost a ton of equipment, including two-hundred-odd feet of cable up to the roof of one tower, then try to find a way to bridge the gap. And to do it with false ID cards, at night so the guards wouldn’t spot them.
The film is the story – made up of original footage and re-created footage – that’s like a classic heist movie; think of “Rififi,” for example. And now, for “Man on Wire,” each person is interviewed about what went on that night and day; it was not a seamless triumph. We – particularly those of us whose legs turn to jelly – are privy to everything that happened, and even though we know that Mr. Petit did succeed, it’s the way in which they solved their problems that’s at least as fascinating. It’s an extraordinary film.