Go see Man on Wire.

Reviews of the latest films.
Aug. 1 2008 4:15 PM

Walking on Air

Go see Man on Wire.

Man on Wire. Click image to expand
Philippe Petit in Man on Wire

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.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

The U.S. Airstrikes on ISIS in Syria Will Probably Benefit America’s Other Enemies

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

It’s Not Easy for Me, but I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
The World
Sept. 23 2014 10:55 AM This Isn’t the Syria Intervention Anyone Wanted
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 23 2014 10:03 AM Watch Steve Jobs Tell Michael Dell, "We're Coming After You"
  Life
Outward
Sept. 23 2014 11:32 AM Key & Peele Explain What Straights Should Expect at a Gay Wedding
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 11:13 AM Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Behold
Sept. 23 2014 11:30 AM A Rope Mistress, the Rubber Master, Sadomasochist Sisters: Portraits in Kink
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 10:51 AM Is Apple Picking a Fight With the U.S. Government? Not exactly.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 23 2014 11:00 AM Google CEO: Climate Change Deniers Are “Just Literally Lying”
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.