Man On Wire (James Marsh, 2008)

“To me, it’s really so simple, that life should be lived on the edge. You have to exercise rebellion. To refuse to tape yourself to the rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge.”


To be honest I only knew about this from the coverage in the film magazines and, ultimately, the winner of Best Documentary at the 81st Academy Awards. Strangely enough, my Uncle only recently bought it and was singing its praises and – regular commenter Jo – watched it at the cinema (possibly twice… but don’t quote me on that). I’m always wary about documentaries. I keep track of the ‘important’ ones on the cards – but I am hardly going to make records of the snippet ‘making of’s on DVD’s. Or the Rihanna music video I happened to watch on MTV. Or the rubbish programme I happened to catch on BBC1. But, this one has some credibility so I thought, well, why not – and believe me, I have a few things to say about documentaries by Michael Moore or the visual feast that is Waltz with Bashir and hopefully, their time will come.

What I reckon …

To summarise, we are tracking Phillippe Petit – a wire-walker – who managed to set-up and walk in between the twin towers in the seventies. The film jumps between the documentary talking-heads talking about the day itself and then flashes back to archive footage showing the young Petit wire-walking in between the Notre Dame and a big bridge in Sydney, Australia. Its based on a book Petit wrote called To Reach the Clouds, and so he is credited as writing the documentary also. He truly is a fascinating character – and his passion and desire forces itself through the TV and onto you, so that you personally feel incredibly excited about this prospect of walking between these two giants.

The coverage of his childhood – following the opening – is truly inspiring. We see a blurry, black and white reconstruction of when Petit first knew about the twin towers being built. It was his destiny to walk in between them – and this in itself, he felt, was fascinating, because they were not even built! The documentary cuts between Petit himself narrating this destiny-dentist visit, while also showing the twin towers themselves being built. His concentration and passion for circus-skills (unicycling and juggling, etc) leads, inevitably, to tightrope walking and wire-walking. This seamless editing is down to Jinx Godfrey whose work, because it is so seamless, can easily be unacknowledged – but it is a credit to him that the documentary flows so fluidly. We even see actual footage of Petit walking across the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris – opposed to the lack of film-footage of him crossing the twin towers (whereby their are many pictures, all shown in this documentary!)

It also tracks his relationship with Annie Allix – a relationship that ended soon after he crossed the twin towers. She held him and supported him through his life – and we see beautiful footage of her holding Petit across a tightrope. He mentions how, post-twin towers, he slept with a different woman – “pleasure of the flesh”. I have a funny feeling that this was the nail in the coffin of their relationship.

The documentary is so well made that all the technological factors all assist in telling a smooth story – they use reconstructions, talking-heads, archive footage, etc – and yet you know the footage which is real (colour, dated) from the conscious choice of blurry, can’t-see-their-faces footage that is used for the reconstructions. The one aspect, which I was aware of prior to watching this was that the finale solely relied on photographs – not film footage. I have to admit that I felt that it would be difficult to get me tense about something that is still – while the beauty, I felt, was in his movement. By the time we reach this point in the film, you are thoroughly aware of his movement and his characteristics – so the subtle layering of the sound of commotion of NYC far below the twin towers while we see the footage makes you feel as if you are watching something truly beautiful. They set everything up so perfectly.

Petit claims that the beauty is how what he is doing is ‘framed by death’ – you are in awe because you know the slightest lack of concentration and he’s gone. This is what makes the documentary so fascinating – every time you see him balancing you see that concentration and beautiful balance.

Quick note – Michael Nyman composed the majority of the music, but it did just sound like a bulk of music taken from a ‘Classical Chillout’ CD – indeed Nyman’s ‘The Piano’ score often features on these albums – so the addition of Erik Satie tracks did nothing but confirm my feelings.

One comment

  1. Just a quick note, I saw this once at the cinema (before it won the Oscar) and as good as it is, Waltzing with Bashir is better.

    Sure, it's a fun story and it's imaginatively told with a fantastically enthusiastic protagonist. There is an element of beauty and mystery to the footage and tale but I do have a couple of issues;
    The suggestion that PP cheated on Annie makes him kinda a dick in my eyes. Also is he not a wee bit too perfectly idealistic, does the relentless enthusiasm not grate a little? We get it buddy, you're a fun guy doing exciting stunts but I wonder if there were fairly massive lows to balance out the (literal) highs.
    Plus what did he do next, how did he top that?

    Personally I couldn't stop thinking about 9/11 which actually added an element of tension because it started talking about the Towers before they existed and then was released when they had gone. Weird to be talking about a building like that. Anyway overall it was subtle, a nice story which drove itself, rather than being forced a la Michael Moore (who I like muchly and certainly has a place in the documentary world).

    On a sidenote I highly recommend Murderball as a non political doc with a gripping story brillantly told. Gritty stuff. And Grizzly Man is both funny and compelling. No doubt that's a big bear. However given that I work in Documentary Distribution I should perhaps be able to think of a few more than that…

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