2008

February 7, 2009
DVD
UK / USA
English / French
94 Minutes
Documentary / Crime
James Marsh

1974. 1350 Feet Up. The Artistic Crime Of The Century.

Unbelievably compelling.

The story of a Frenchman–one of those juggler, unicycle, magician, street performer types who felt it was his duty to walk between the World Trade Center towers on a tightrope. He had previously walked on the Sydney Harbor Bridge and between the two towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral.

But the WTC walk required incredible planning, inside men, a bow and arrow, perfect timing, a team for each building, sleeping guards, fake id badges, and a lot of luck. And that was before the guy began his walk. One might ask how a film about a tightrope walk can be made exciting. I would have asked the same thing before seeing it. To make matters (on paper) worse, there is no moving footage of the walk. There are handful of stills only. And yet.

One of the many talking heads in the film is the man himself, Philippe Petit. So we know he survives. And he doesn’t appear to be speaking from prison, so he probably didn’t get a life sentence. And yet. We are riveted as he plans, argues, draws up designs, gathers helpers, and walks between the frickin World Trade Center towers.

Mr. Petit is a show-off. He is a loudmouth, he treats women poorly, he has no respect for the law. Because he feels he has a higher calling. How a walk on a rope can be called art, I didn’t know before watching this movie. But now I do. Petit tells the story of learning of the building of the WTC and believing that it had actually been built so that he could walk between it. It was designed and built so a man from France could come over and perform in between its towers. And as goofy as that sounds, you will believe it once you see it. It is somehow art. There is a beauty and a sense of awe. He appears to be dancing–1350 feet up.

As a story, it needs no extra bells and whistles from the filmmakers. But luckily, the style of the film is also superb. There are a few re-creations, there is enough original footage of training sessions and prior stunts for us to get an idea what it might look like in NYC. There are talking heads who are still angry at each other. And there is Mr. Petit to guide us in his hyper-poetic manner.

I have this thing about jumping off high places into water. A bridge in California, a cliff in Greece, every waterfall in Hawaii. I am afraid of heights but find the challenge of overcoming that fear a pretty cool thing. I’m also one of those people who looks down from a great height and isn’t sure that his legs will walk themselves over the edge against his brain’s instructions. But I was absolutely not prepared for how scared shitless I was when I simply saw photographs of the men planning their caper. They lied their way to the top several times and pretended to take photos of workmen, but were really taking photos of anchor points and such which they’d use later to string the wire. And some of these photos, with Petit at the edge of the building, caused me to shake. I can’t explain it. Photos from the early 70s cause a physical reaction.

At one point in his walk, Petit lies down on the wire. All alone. Silently. At 1350 feet, he lies down suspended between the tallest building in the world. A plane flies overhead.

And strangely, the first word that came to my head was, “beautiful.” I may have been tearing up a bit while saying it.

Just an incredible experience.

My Number 10 for 2008.

Oscar Nomination: Best Documentary of 2008.

8.9 Metacritic
8.1 IMDB

Man on Wire @ Amazon

MAN ON WIRE

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Written by Michael W. Cummins