Saturday, November 23, 2013

Man On Wire (2008)

Man On WireLet me state upfront that I am a sucker for great non-fiction documentaries. I've always believed that life is stranger than fiction. And this is just the last (and perhaps best) example of it.

"Man on Wire" (98 min.) tells the improbable story of Phillipe Petit's dream (and eventual reality) of walking on a high wire between the two WTC buildings on August 7, 1974. The movie starts with his humble beginngins of being a street artist, eventually leading to his wanting to do high wire walks, starting with the Paris Notre Dame, then the Sidney Harbor, and then eventually the World Trade Center Towers. The movie does an excellent job building the excitement into what it took to eventually pull off that implossible event. All of the main players of the event are interviewed now more than 30 years after the event, and Philippe Petit turns out to be a master entertainer and story teller. When you are watching it all unvolve, you can't but help be in awe of it all. Just exilerating, period.

If this movie doesn't get serious consideration of being nominated for best documentary of 2008 at the Oscars, there is something terribly wrong with the entire system. This is one of the most enthralling movies I've seen this year, and I've seen a lot of movies.

On the surface, Man on Wire may appear to be a straightforward documentary about an eccentric high wire artist who is either incredibly brave, or incredibly stupid. But if you look closer, you might discover one of the best suspense thrillers/heist movies of 2008, although no guns are drawn and nothing gets stolen. It is also one of the most romantic films I've seen this year, although it is not a traditional love story. Existential and even a tad surreal at times, it is ultimately a deeply profound treatise on following your bliss.

Late in the summer of 1974, a diminutive Frenchman named Philippe Petit made a splash (of the figurative kind, luckily) by treating unsuspecting NYC morning commuters to the sight of a lifetime: a man taking a casual morning stroll across a ¾" steel cable, stretched from rooftop to rooftop between the two towers of the then-unfinished World Trade Center, 1350 feet skyward. After traversing the 200 foot wide chasm with supernatural ease, he decided to turn around and have another go. And another. And another. All told, Petit made 8 round trips, with only one brief but memorable rest stop. He took a breather to lie on his back (mid-wire) and enjoy what had to have been the ultimate Moment of Zen ever experienced in the history of humankind, contemplating the sky and enjoying a little chit-chat with a seagull.

Now, a stunt like this doesn't just happen on a whim. There are a few logistical hurdles to consider beforehand. Like how do you transport 450 lbs of steel cable to the roof of one tower of the World Trade Center, and then safely tether it across to its twin? A clandestine operation of this magnitude requires meticulous planning, and at least a couple trustworthy co-conspirators. Sounds like the makings of a classic heist film, no?

All of this potential for a cracking good true-life tale was not lost on director James Marsh, who enlisted the still spry and charmingly elfin Petit, along with a few members of his "crew" to give a first-hand account of events leading up to what can perhaps best be described as a "performance art heist". Marsh also deserves kudos for his excellent choice of music; the accompaniment of Peter Green's sublime, haunting guitar instrumental "Albatross" to one of Petit's more balletic high wire walks is an unexpected treat, making for a truly transcendent cinematic moment.

Of course, the foremost question on anyone's mind would be "Why did he do it?" At the time, he enigmatically offered "When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk." Petit himself remains a bit elusive on the motivations for his stunts. The director doesn't really push the issue, which I think is a wise choice. When you watch the mesmerizing footage of Petit floating on the air between the towers of Notre Dame, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and then ultimately the World Trade Center, you realize that it is simply an act of pure aesthetic grace, like a beautiful painting or an inspired melody. And you also suspect that he does it...because he can. That's impressive enough for me, because I can barely balance a checkbook, and when it comes to heights, I get a nosebleed from thick socks.

Buy Man On Wire (2008) Now

I was lured into seeing this film by my teenage son, who is a circus acrobat by genetic conviction as surely as Philippe Petit was a high-wire walker and as I am a musician. I would never have entered the theater if I'd known what I'd be seeing. I have a pathologically empathetic response to films. When I was a little kid, I used to shout out warnings to Tweetie Bird when the cat got near. During fight scenes, my whole body twitches and my wife gets nervous for the safety of the unsuspecting head in front of me. I'm a climber in real life. I've been to the summit of Annapurna. But my blood pressure rises and I tremble with acrophobia at Hollywood simulations of climbing. This film Man on Wire took two years off my life, I'm sure. It's that intense, with its coy intersplicing of still photos and super-eight footage of Petit in mid-air and lovely slow talking-head interviews of Petit and his accomplices, years later, clearly establishing that they all survived to tell the tale.

Those interviews of middle-aged daredevils, reminiscing about their greatest caper, were as intense for me as the dodgy accomplishment of the adventure. It was literally the end of a love affair with life for all of them, something "too hot not to cool down," an overture too overwhelming to be followed by a mere opera. When Petit's boyhood friend broke down in tears at the waning of their friendship, when Petit's wife-the-love-of-his-life felt the reality that his life no longer needed hers, the whole social cost of Petit's obsession moved me also almost to tears. Hey, I might have cried if my heart had slowed down to twice normal. I felt an urge to grab my son and hug or shake him, saying "don't let your art be more to you than your life."

There's more to this film than a mere victimless heist thriller.

Read Best Reviews of Man On Wire (2008) Here

Don't think a documentary about a high-wire walker could be worth 5 stars? Think again! This riveting and inspirational movie combines still photographs, reenactments, actual video, and interviews with the people involved in Phillipe Petit's high wire adventures. Phillipe shows us what it means to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, follow your dreams, and squeeze every last drop out of life. If he could walk between the Twin Towers, just imagine what you can do...

Want Man On Wire (2008) Discount?

When the charismatic and daring Frenchman Philipe Petit saw a drawing of the projected twin towers of the World Trade Center, he immediately knew. Even though they had yet to be built, he knew that someday he would have to cross them. This intense and exhilirating documentary aims to show us how and why. The how is easier to tell. Its effort to explore the why is what makes this documentary much more than merely exciting. We all need a reason to live, a passion to drive us. The greatest passions are those that push the limits of the conceivable.

In one of the opening scenes of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the would-be teacher arrives in a crowded marketplace to preach the possibility of the "overman," the inventor of new values who would elevate humanity towards higher pursuits than merely pleasure and pain and the avoidance of death. The crowd misunderstands him, thinking he refers to the tightrope artist who was to appear above them.

Watching this remarkable documentary, about Philipe Petit's criminal act of performance art, it would be hard not to see that he is no ordinary man. It would be difficult not to see in his story possibilities for a life unconstrained by the merely pragmatic concerns of day-to-day living, that reaches out beyond the possible and accepts risk in order to achieve something truly remarkable.

Of course, as the film makes clear, Mr. Petit is by no means an "overman" -he is remarkable and talented and charismatic but at the same time deeply flawed, notably in his seeming inability to see the immensity of the sacrifices that his friends (and lover) make for the sake of his visions. While his crossing of the twin towers was astonishing and beautiful, it stunned me that just afterwards he could forget his friends (and lover) to pursue an amorous encounter with an admirer. The film does not shy away from presenting his flaws, and perhaps the greatest strength of the film is to show how much his accomplishments depended on the skills and efforts of many collaborators. It was a team project, and while the film strongly suggests that their friendships had become damaged or broken in the aftermath, it does give a strong voice to the perspectives of the many participants.

The film is edited brilliantly, combining actual footage and newsreel with interviews and re-enactments. The filmmakers tell the story as if it were a heist film, meticulously portraying the complex preparations that were required, with the crossing as the final prize, and gradually lay in back story to add emotional depth and significance to the final event. I found it to be at least as intense and entertaining as any fictional heist film I've ever seen -and I've seen quite a few. The pacing of the film is just right.

The music is perfect -combining classical pieces with original compositions. It was only on second viewing that I realized I'd heard some of the most intriguing music before, in the work of another brilliant British auteur, Peter Greenaway (The Draughtsman's Contract, and Drowning by Numbers). The film won top prizes at Sundance, where I had the chance to see it for the first time, taking both the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Choice award in the World Documentary category. They were well deserved. The film is both astonishing, complex and enormously entertaining -and nicely gives a beautiful crime to remember in connection with the World Trade Center, as a counterpoint to the more recent atrocities. This film is definitely not one to be missed.

Nate Andersen

No comments:

Post a Comment