Reviewed by Jason Rotstein
Man on Wire could be a documentary about the human condition; the desperation that inspires remarkable acts of bravery. Philippe Petit is unlike anyone else in the world, a man with the refreshing prurience to outdo himself each day of his life, a man whose imagination truly knows no bounds. In 1974 Philippe Petit completed eight crossings between the Twin Towers on a wire. The high wire act
was all the more remarkable for the amount of planning and engineering that went into masterminding this "high stakes criminal" affair. James Marsh's documentary is programmed to the improbabilities and fancies of Petit's character: the feat that the appropriately named "Petit" accomplished when he walked between the two tallest freestanding structures of the time. Here, Marsh, a British director, is improbably directing a film about a thieving and conniving Frenchman who takes the badge of Bataille. "Life begins on the edge," posits Petit. "Life begins on the edge of limits where all reason breaks down," counters Bataille. Strangely, in this film, which has everything to do with the architectural eccentricities and challenges of rigging the Twin Towers for walking, no mention is ever made of their eventual collapse. This is yet another example of an improbability or coup within the movie.
The film does not deal with more of the soft particulars of the matter, of how Petit managed to finance the planning and execution of the project with his band of co-conspirators—a group one part idealistic subversives, one part lowlife losers, one part Bande à part—or why that act is to be celebrated as a great work of art; instead the film pilots a safer course. Marsh rigs Man on Wire for the familiar thematic course of a documentary examination of the tenuousness of human relationships. The film is about the singularity and pertinacity of Petit's character and vision, the inevitable band of followers that drew to him, and the post-production fallout that ensued.
A more interesting subtext that the film entreats is whether Marsh was intending to make an anti-war film. In one sense, Petit is the "enemy" of the War on Terror. A false enemy—if that— and a prestidigitator arraigned on a trumped up charge. The "World Trade Center Association" camp in Vary, France where Petit and his retinue trained is setup as a foil and an antithesis to Al-Qaeda training camps and all the rhetoric and politics surrounding the terrorist attacks. Petit is certainly an anti-hero, an anti-criminal; he wears a "death mask" when he practices his death-defying art. But is he the emblem of an anti-war hero? Or is the project a light take on the serious business of history?
Petit is, to date, still a busker, a pickpocket and a man who inhabits the streets. He is a man who still manages to cheat death and quell fear. None of this is said in the film. Petit's anarchism, an anarchism for the world and society in general, would never countenance the emblem of "anti-war hero" if that is what Marsh is intending.
At the end of the day, no footage of Petit's highwire act ever was recorded for posterity, what we see on screen are recreations and montages. A few still photographs are all that remain; no time was wasted with the technological translatability of the event. And that seems fitting; Petit is more a folk hero; his story more a thing existing in legend than in recognized fact. I'm sure Petit wouldn't have it any other way.