In the middle of the night on Aug. 7, 1974, a French high-wire artist named Philippe Petit broke into the just-built World Trade Center with a small band of accomplices. As dawn was breaking, the men strung a cable between the Twin Towers, upon which Petit proceeded to walk for 45 minutes, crossing back and forth eight times as he danced, knelt, and lay down on the wire. Afterward, he was arrested, subjected to psychiatric evaluation (Q: "Why did you do this?" A: "There is no why"), and released. His community-service sentence: to perform a second, legal high-wire walk in Central Park for the children of New York City.
James Marsh's documentary Man on Wire(Magnolia Pictures), which opened in New York last week and will be released around the country in August (check the official Web site for theater dates by city), focuses on the six-and-a-half years of planning and execution that went into this simple yet mind-blowing stunt. It's not a portrait of the artist himself or a reflection on the meaning of his prank in the retroactive light of the towers' destruction—in fact, we learn little about Petit's motivations or psychology, and the events of Sept. 11 are never mentioned head-on. It's more like a real-life heist picture, one in which the final prize isn't a vault full of cash but an act of pure, useless, and terrifying beauty.
Through talking-head reminiscences, old home-movie footage of Petit's training camp in the French countryside, and surprisingly noncheesy re-enactments, Marsh re-creates the event that Petit and his crew came to call le coup. This act of benign terrorism involved security breaches straight out of Ocean's Eleven, by way of a Marx Brothers movie: There were forged IDs, disguises, nearly a ton of smuggled equipment, and the last-minute conscription of two dodgy American accomplices who freely admit they were stoned during the planning sessions.
Petit's girlfriend at the time, Annie Allix, offers some of the most moving testimonials, recalling how, as a shy young woman drawn by Petit's charisma, she gave up on her own dreams for years to help him follow his. But the eloquent Allix is gallantly (and Gallically) accommodating. She speaks without bitterness or resentment of how she and Petit drifted apart in the wake of the event: "It was beautiful that way." Jean-François Blondeau, a childhood friend of Petit's who was the chief co-planner of the walk, recalls in extraordinary detail how they debated such problems as how to get the wire from one tower to the other (Blondeau's irresistibly low-tech solution: a bow and arrow).
After some narrative detours about Petit's earlier walks between the towers of Notre Dame cathedral and over the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the film finally, thrillingly circles back to the morning of the walk itself, of which the only surviving images are black-and-white still photos taken by Blondeau on the towers and a small fragment of film footage shot by a pedestrian on the ground below. Thirty-four years later, both Allix and Blondeau spontaneously weep while describing the experience of watching le coup. Even the NYPD cop who was waiting on the building's roof to arrest Petit sounds bedazzled: "When he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire, but instead he turned around and ran back into the middle. … Unbelievable, really. Everybody was spellbound in the watching of it."
Petit himself comes off as a study in artistic monomania. He's mischievous and self-mythologizing, seductive and narcissistic; when he describes a sexual encounter with a random groupie only hours after his release from custody as "an explosion of pleasure," you can't help but think of Allix, the long-suffering girlfriend who spent so many years looking up at a wire, with her heart in her throat.
Man on Wire's insistence on the lyrical beauty of Petit's art leaves a lot of practical questions unanswered: For example, before the WTC walk brought him worldwide fame, how did he fund his existence as a jet-setting freelance prankster? But to see Petit on that wire (accompanied by Erik Satie's wistful piano piece "Gymnopédies") is to forgive all. It's nearly impossible to look now at images of the Twin Towers without seeing them as portents of their own destruction, two enormous gravestones. But without bombast or pathos—as gracefully as a tightrope walker—Man on Wire brings back a time when the towers were still symbols of aspiration and possibility.