Man on Wire is an astonishing documentary made by British film director James Marsh, which was released in 2008. It’s a true story, in the interpretation on Phillipe Petit’s book “To Reach the Clouds”. This is his extraordinary tale of one man dreaming, planning and then, on August 7, 1974, executing one of the most impressive stunts of the 20th Century as his dream to string a wire between Twin Tower of the World Trade Centre in New York and transpire to walk across is the film about.
Constructed like a classic heist film- The title of the movie is taken from the police report that led to the arrest (and later release) of Petit, whose performance had lasted for almost one hour. The film is crafted like a heist film, presenting those rare footages of the event preparation in 1974, alongside re-enactments (with Paul McGill as the young Petit) and present-day interviews with the participants, blow-by-blow re-creation and re-enactments as well as archival footage even including Super 8 footage from Petit’s personal camera. Man on Wire transcends the label of documentary. With this strong underlying narrative, and comes to a head during a whimsical climax scene that mixes together still photographs, interviews and archival footage to simultaneously tell parallel stories and leave the audience in amazement.
Man on Wire competed in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize: World Cinema Documentary and the World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary. In February 2009, the film won the BAFTA for Outstanding British Film, the Independent Spirit Awards, and the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
The film was conceived when the Producer Simon Chinn first encountered Philippe Petit in April 2005 on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, after which he decided to try to acquire the film rights to his book “To Reach the Clouds”. After several months of discussion, Petit agreed, with the condition that he could actively collaborate in the making of the film. In an interview conducted during the run of Man on Wire at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, director James Marsh explained that he was drawn to the story in part because it immediately struck him as “a heist movie”. As Jean Francois, one of Petit’s collaborators later said, “It may have been illegal…but it wasn’t wicked or mean.”
James Marsh, who lives in NY now, mentioned that this is a perfect gift to people of NY since the 9/11 attacks. He said he hopes to hear people say that they will now always think of Petit and his performance when recalling the World Trade Center’s twin towers, responding to critics of why the towers’ destruction in the 2001 attacks is not mentioned in the film, Marsh explained that Philippe Petit’s act was “incredibly beautiful” and that it “would be unfair and wrong to infect his story with any mention, discussion or imagery of the Towers being destroyed.”
Looking at director James Marsh’s view on this story and his objective- Marsh sets out to express the story about a man, his attitude towards Petite’s life that refuses to concede limits and boundaries and to tell it in a very medium where anything is possible in life and his challenges are what make life interesting and overcoming them is what makes life meaningful is very nostalgic thru the ubiquitous theme of the consequences of human relationships, Marsh artistically depict the parallel stories that trigger excitement, suspense and living every minute with passion, grace & gratitude.
The story chronicled Philippe Petit’s background as a French street performer and a wire-walker, in his past had performed a high-wire walk between the towers of the Notre Dame in Paris as well as between two pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia. Petite become obsessed after having seen the picture of the Twin Towers in a magazine, activates the strategy of his plans and travels to NY City on numerous occasion, decided to look beyond his dreams and imagination, following boisterous build-up as Petit and his crew finally set up the wire, which leads to this scene of making it possible.
The film wonderfully portrays of how Petit straddling, with his legs on each side of the wire between his mindful of thoughts as a sheer madman and genius in the making. Watching this film gives you the impression of man’s obsession of over ruling through his guts. You can see the still photograph of Petit’s first step out onto the wire, accompanied by the sounds of nature and Petit’s voiceover, “death is very close.” Petit speaks with the wonder of a child in the language of a philosopher. Whether discussing his childhood fascination with the wire walk or his early practice attempts atop pylons of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge or Paris’s Notre Dame or the main event itself, and however his taste for life, the sense of humor, curiosity of attempting those challenges, vivid disruptions and concentration, and his gusto gives the film an eccentric & unconventional impetus.
So much so the use of extensive archive material and some outstanding reconstructions of the action are breathtaking. Director Marsh does a fine job of winding up the tension too. At times you feel that the ‘Man on Wire’ is more a thriller in its flair of Hollywood, than existential documentary. You can see this documentary well researched, the technical details of the plan, their operation of executing like a heist, spending months studying the towers, devising splendid ways in which to transport their equipment up and then across the towers, in all its frame which is captured so magnificently throughout a slow moving zoom out to gain perspective of a small man against the massive backdrop of the building, in all this great effort by the cameraman Igor Martinovic.
While Marsh is not present in the movie, you could still tell his stance towards Petit is one which surprises the audience. He keeps the still frames of Petit on the screen for what most would consider far too long to give the audience the feel that something is happening and we need to pay close attention. No live footage of his walk exists and while re-enactment worked in other times of the movie, in this instance it would seem unsatisfactory so the montage of still images seemed to be the way to go. The photographs helped to capture how transient this moment was and how dream like it was and watching it almost mesmerizes as I still say it’s phenomenal throughout…..
The film score by Michael Nyman’s marvelously dramatic music with piano as the base supplements the scenes so well flawless in the gentle linger of tune seem menacing and triumphant, conjuring ominousness as the director Marsh effectively communicates the classic story of a man going on an impossible quest with all the setbacks and obstacles along the way and succeeding on the other side of the rope. The still frames continue and he includes a shot from the ground of a microscopic Petit in between the two towers and slowly zooms in. It was a perfect combination between Petit’s optimistic ability and the Twin Towers that represented the financial and capitalist center of the world.
The climax of ‘Man on Wire’ is one of the most extraordinary scenes in contemporary documentary history, in all its picture-perfect editing and each scene blend together of archival footage and real-time movie making is so joyous and eye-catching through the free flowing story in its excitement, uncertainty and anticipation of the Petit’s straddle on the rope is worth his walk……
- Directed by James Marsh
- Produced by Simon Chinn
- Starring: Philippe Petit
- Music by Ralph (title theme) & Michael Nyman
- Cinematography by Igor Martinovic
- Editing by Jinx Godfrey
- Studio: Discovery Films; BBC Story Ville; UK Film Council; Wall to Wall & Red Box Films
- Distributed by Magnolia Pictures (US); Icon Productions (UK) & Diaphana Films (France)
- Release dates: 22 January 2008 (Sundance)& 1 August 2008 (UK)
- Run time of 94 minutes
- Country: UK & US
- Language: English & French