After finishing Let The Great World Spin it felt only appropriate to watch Man on Wire, the Oscar-winning documentary about Philippe Petit and his crew pulling off “the artistic crime of the century.” Director James Marsh treats it as such, presenting Petit’s feat as a heist and his helpers as accomplices. The film is like Ocean’s 11 remade as a documentary but with way less money at stake.
The day leading up to the walk (which took place the morning of August 7, 1974) is recreated with time stamps for dramatic effect: the South Tower crew arriving via van at 3:58 p.m. with an invented work order; the North Tower crew entering at 4:25 p.m. with fake IDs and an architect’s tube containing a bow and arrow instead of blueprints; the rooftop preparations beginning at 11:08 p.m. after Petit had been hiding under a tarp for hours to evade security guards on patrol. As characters enter the narrative, Marsh introduces them by first name, often emerging from shadow and with a musical flourish; the effect is to remind the viewer that while Petit alone made the walk, it took a village to pull it off.
While the film is a seamless blend of interviews, reenactments and actual footage of Petit training, the famous walk itself is presented only in stills, which does nothing to limit its power. One picture of Petit in midair shows him beaming; an assistant says of the moment, “I saw his face changing. He was very intense and all of a sudden there was something like a relief in him. And from that time I thought, ‘That’s it. He’s secure.'” Secure enough that Petit danced, ran, saluted, even laid down on the wire. When police arrived on the roof, he provoked them by walking to the edge of the building before turning around to perform some more.
Back on the ground, the question spectators and reporters yell at Petit as police escort him away is, “Why did you do it?” The question exacerbates Petit. “Why? Why? That was a very American, finger-snapping question,” he says. “I did something magnificent and mysterious, and I got a practical, ‘Why?’ And the beauty of it is that I didn’t have any why.”
If you missed it, Petit pulled off the most acrobatic Oscar acceptance speech of all time last February. Enjoy.