When the idea of building the World Trade Center Twin Towers began to germinate in NYC, on the other side of the globe, a young man in France started to weave a dream. He wanted to walk across the top of the Towers on a wire after they were built. Six years later, with the Towers nearing completion, Philippe Petit fulfilled his dream a few days short of his 25th birthday. On August 7, 1974, he stepped on a wire strung across the roof top of the then tallest buildings in the world. Hailed as ‘The Artistic Crime of the Century’, Philippe Petit’s breathtaking, and illegal, high wire act is the ultimate test of the human spirit, pushing the limit of audacity and strength.
Based on Philippe Petit’s book To Reach The Clouds, Man On Wire has won over 20 film awards only a few short months after its release, ultimately receiving the Oscar Best Documentary for 2008. Director James Marsh chronicles the extraordinary endeavor of Philippe Petit by means of interviews, dramatic re-creation, and archival footage. Before the WTC, Petit had walked across the two steeples of the Nortre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The WTC Towers meant the summit of his aspirations. In a Sundance Film Festival interview, he described his act as ‘marrying the Towers’.
Director James Marsh has chosen a very human angle to present his subject, such that we’re not just watching an extraordinary circus feat. The documentary reveals a child growing up with unusual physical talents. It vividly depicts the fearlessness of youth, the weaving of a fairy tale, the bond of friendship without which Philippe could not have achieved, and finally the euphoria of a dream fulfilled. The smile on Philippe’s face while on the wire says it all.
The interviews in the film have also brought some very personal elements into this enthralling event. We see Philippe’s childhood friend and accomplice Jean-Louis overcome with emotion, now more than 30 years later, as he recalls and is still moved by the immensity of the experience.
It’s a crime, no doubt, but it’s team work of the highest level of difficulty. That they had to haul hundreds of pounds of wire and equipment up to the roof top, shoot the wire across, anchor it safe, all without detection was itself an incredible feat. Once that was done, the rest was easy for Philippe, he just needed to walk on the wire suspended 1,350 feet above ground.
And that is when the artful part comes in. Philippe had not just walked on tightrope, but performed with grace and serenity, movements conjuring up images of ballet on air. For 45 minutes, he slow-danced across the Towers eight times, lay, knelt, and sat on the wire to the amazement of the awestruck crowd on the ground. There was unspeakable beauty in his magnificent boldness.
Police had to threaten him with a helicopter to get him off. He and his friends were immediately handcuffed, taken to jail, and Phillipe undergone a psychiatric examination. He was later released and given a life-time pass to the Towers. When asked why he did it, he answered:
“There’s no why… Life should be lived on the edge.”
Excellent special features that come with the DVD include Philippe Petit’s 1973 Sydney Harbour Bridge Crossing, exclusive interview with Philippe Petit, and an animated short film based on the children book by Mordicai Gerstein “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers”, narrated by Jake Gyllenhaal. Further, in this post 9/11 world, the DVD is even more significant in that it chronicles someone who had taken the arduous steps to appreciate and to relate to the Towers in a most memorable way.
And then there’s the music. I admit it’s the music that has enthralled me from the start, yes, even with just the menu. While Michael Nyman has written some fantastic original score for the documentary, it’s French composer Eric Satie’s pieces that so captivate me. Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1 is the music that augments the beauty of Philippe’s poetic walk on wire.
While most of us would rather watch life being lived on the edge from the comfort of our living room, we would be inspired nonetheless to venture out of our couch for a little more excitement, and motivated to take just a bit more risks with our life. For us ordinary folks, maybe living life to the fullest is an aspiration challenging enough.
~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples
“If no one ever took risks, Michaelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor.” — Neil Simon
Philippe Petit and James Marsh Interviews: