Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Man on Wire

Directed by James Marsh.
2008. Rated R, 94 minutes.
Philippe Petit
Jean François Heckel
Jean-Louis Blondeau
Annie Allix
David Forman
Barry Greenhouse
Alan Welner
Mark Lewis

Philippe Petit is crazy. That’s it. No other explanation will reconcile my brain with what I saw, what he did. In my wildest dreams, my most imaginative moments, I’m the richest, most powerful, most famous man in the world capable of athletic feats and romantic endurance only the gods can rival. Even then, what he did is as far from my mind as a speck of dust falling harmlessly to the floor one million light years away. Insanity must be the only portal through which one not only arrives at the idea Philippe did, but to make it a reality.

Apparently, insanity is also contagious. If it isn't, there is no possible way our hero could've enlisted seemingly rational people to bring this particular dream to fruition, even if they were full of reckless abandon and youthful exuberance. Yet, his dream became theirs. They willfully participated in what could easily have been his cause of death.

Oh, I haven’t told you what Philippe did that has given me such cause to pause. He has only done one of the most amazing things any human being can claim as gospel truth. Way back in 1974, long before the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center became the site of a national tragedy and effectively the genesis of a lengthy war, they were a brand spanking new symbol of America’s prosperity. Two buildings, about two hundred feet apart, each standing 110 stories, became one of the signature landmarks of the iconic New York skyline. This fool, for lack of a better description, and his friends miraculously managed to rig a tightrope from one roof to the other which Philippe, timidly at first, then brazenly, walked and danced back and forth across for about 45 minutes. This is a documentary of just how this event came to be.

I call him a fool because it was a foolish act. The fact is, the only way to describe his feat, and this movie, is to resort to a well-worn cliché: it is a triumph of the human spirit. No doubt, Philippe’s quirky, not quite all there personality and obvious zest for life makes the stories of planning and carrying out of his moment at the top of the world into compelling drama. Those same traits were instrumental in convincing people to go along with his cockamamie idea. There is also a love story and similarly flavored friendships that help ground the narration. They keep us from forgetting that this was nothing to be taken lightly, but something that could've turned out in a dreadfully different manner.

By the end, we feel as some of the eyewitness and participants feel. The magic of Philippe’s act overwhelms us. We can’t help but feel exhilarated. It is during this part of the film that contains the most poignant moment. We see footage from a local New York newscast the evening following the event. One of the police officers who arrested Philippe (you knew this was illegal, right?) is being interviewed. We can clearly see he’s a man torn between admonishing someone for breaking the law and admiring the same person for providing him with the most incredible sight of his or most anyone else’s life. We hear the tremble in his voice, see the tears welling up. How they don’t come tumbling down his cheeks is an act of willpower that might be worthy of its own film.

The big moment is tainted just a little, but only very little. All through the movie there is plenty of old footage from Philippe’s home videos mixed with some dramatizations. However, of the walk itself, there are only still shots. They’re still unbelievably amazing, but I was hoping to catch a glance or two of our hero in motion during the apex of his existence.

In the end, it’s just a beautifully done documentary of something most of us couldn’t even fathom trying. It’s also a much more positive light through which we can remember the Twin Towers. Philippe, and the movie, are refreshingly free from politics, sad reminscing or even mentioning the fate of the great buildings. Instead, we watch a man, and the people who helped him, fondly remember the time when he played on the world’s largest jungle gym.

The Opposite View: Noel Murray, The Onion (A.V. Club)

What the Internet Says: 8.0/10 on (9/29/10), 100% on, 89/100 on

MY SCORE: 10/10

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