A man decides he wants to tightrope walk across the newly built World Trade Center Twin Towers. This is his story.
For a documentary to succeed with a wide audience, it needs to do more than just document events. It needs to tell a story in a gripping and engaging way. Man on Wire succeeds in presenting one of the most compelling documentaries in the genre and is set up as much as a thriller as a non-fiction feature.
The first scenes in the film are a little offsetting. If you don’t know the synopsis of the film, you might believe you are watching the beginning of a terrorist feature. A group of people plan to enter the World Trade Centers to accomplish something, but they don’t let on what the plan is. There is a level of distrust between some of the group and a level of excitement between others. The ringleader, Philippe, seems to believe he might be walking to his own death.
However, we then cut to the past and learn that Philippe is a tightrope walker, and has been since childhood. We watch as he enlists a group of accomplices and then watch as he practices his art. We see him as he walks the rope across the Sidney Harbor Bridge in Australia. He walks across the towers of Notre Dame. He is arrested every time but succeeds in scaling the wire, walking, lying and even juggling as he crosses. It is all in preparation of his eventual attempt at scaling wires across the World Trade Center, the tallest buildings in the world.
There are many things we see in the film that are from Philippe’s home video collection but there are also just as many events shot with actors, recreating them. Some of the people we see are actors and others are the real people, but it is seamlessly constructed so you never can be completely sure which is which. Philippe is himself, both in the past and now, but everyone else’s identities are a guessing game.
Petit is a very engaging man, still excited about his stunts from over thirty years ago. It is Petit, who speaks fluent English, that narrates the story and brings his tales to life in a very interesting and surprising way. Neither Petit, nor anyone else in the film, mentions the tragedy of 9/11 and that is a great decision. Director James Marsh (The King) chooses instead to let you remember a time when people invading the Twin Towers was due to love and respect and not hatred. By sticking with the joyful exuberance of Petit the film remains a joy to watch as his enthusiasm is contagious. It is possible to watch this film without the extra baggage that the films’ monstrous co-stars brought to the table.
The film would win the Sundance Grand Jury Prize as well as the Audience Award for documentaries and it is easy to see why. The film plays out at the pace of a thriller while remaining entrenched in the psychological drama of the participants’ doubts and fears. It is clear from the start that Petit will achieve his goal but as the stunt grew closer, you can’t help but start to doubt the climactic result.
The final result of the film would be Petit’s 45-minute walk on the cable stretched between those towers, which stood 1,350 feet above the ground. Petit crossed the distance eight times in what would result as a joyous triumph of one man’s dream. Watching the heartfelt reactions of people looking back on the event, the movie pays off beautifully when you watch him on that rope. The movie rises to another level by showing how the stunt shattered the relationship between these friends thanks to the notoriety of the case. It was a beautiful moment that changed everything.
People seem to question what would make a man perform such a dangerous, and in some minds, crazy act like this. Petit answers the question by saying there is no why. This documentary shows the incident in the same way that Petit has lived his life. It is a playful, yet very skillful, look at a man who refuses to live life safely and lives his life on the edge. If his next act brings him to death, he states it will be well worth it. The documentary is an amazing story and deserves all the accolades it will ever be awarded.
Sydney Harbor Bridge Crossing  (20:15) – This is a short look at Petit’s earlier stunt when he walked across the bridge crossing in Australia. It includes interviews with Petit and his co-conspirator James Ricketson as well as Petit’s personal video footage. It’s another interesting look at Petit and his determination, but is a more straight forward documentary.
Philippe Petit Interview (12:40) – Petit sits down and talks about the history of wire walkers, as well as the fact he calls himself the only wire walking artist remaining outside the circus. He said he believes the circus wirewalkers are simply stunt takers and not theater as he is.
The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (10:12) – Michael Sporn (Doctor DeSoto) directed this animated short film in 2005 based on Petit’s accomplishment. Jake Gyllenhaal narrates this short.