1974. 1,350 FEET UP. THE ARTISTIC CRIME OF THE CENTURY.
Suffering from the flu, I have had little choice but go through every movie I have on my “waiting list” in my apartment, which hasn’t been entirely unpleasant. The best experience I’ve had is watching this documentary. At a moment when you feel too weak even to leave your home, it is refreshing to watch a human being talk about the time he worked up the strength to walk a high wire between the two tallest buildings in the world.
Philippe Petit was born in France in 1949 to relatively strict parents, but he soon developed an urge to climb things and become a daredevil. In the early 1960s, the rebellious kid realized that the best thing he knew was to walk a wire and he learned every trick you can imagine. He decided that his art should be enjoyed by everybody in spectacular ways. In the early 1970s he garnered much attention by walking between the two towers of the Notre Dame in Paris and between two of the pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. However, years earlier there had been a newspaper article announcing the construction of the tallest buildings in the world, what would be known as the World Trade Center, in New York City and Petit felt an almost magical attraction to them.
In 1974 the Twin Towers were finally open for business and Petit started planning the impossible – to walk a wire between the North and South Towers 1,350 feet up in the air, something no one had been close to achieving before. On the morning of August 7th he did it and lived to tell the story.
Fascinating backdrop to the main story
Too bad that there’s no footage of Petit walking the wire between the towers, but there are still photographs (one of them graces the poster) and they certainly induce awe. The fact that Petit pulled it off in spite of the conditions up there and the fact that the stunt was illegal is credit to the planning he and his crew did months in advance. That meant several trips to New York City, with Petit sneaking into the towers, making observations and taking pictures, even posing as a reporter for a French magazine on one occasion.
As the film makes clear, his team was anything but solidly reliable; they were a motley bunch of adventure-seeking men, some of whom never really thought the crazy Frenchman would go through with it. The interviews with them provide a fascinating backdrop to the main story, which is enthusiastically narrated by Petit who at the age of 60 has maintained both his physique and child-like excitement. Director James Marsh once said that his primary interest lay in the way Petit’s adventure looked like a heist and he has cleverly (and very handsomely, in stylish and dramatic black-and-white) recreated the events in the towers as Petit and his team spent hours both preparing the wire and everything that went with it and hiding from security guards who were patrolling what in some respects still was a construction site.
The interviews and the restaged footage are mixed with archive material of the towers during the construction phase, illustrating the work on what was to become Petit’s defining moment of triumph.
It is indeed exciting to watch this superbly well executed portrayal of “le coup”. The filmmakers have intentionally avoided to mention the destruction of the World Trade Center 30 years after they were built, but it is nevertheless impossible to watch the movie and not think of it as a beautiful contribution to the almost mystical saga of two towers that were both hated and admired upon their construction – and for a short while connected with a wire holding a man who felt like walking in the clouds between them.
Man on Wire 2008-U.S.-Britain. 94 min. Color-B/W. Produced by Simon Chinn. Directed by James Marsh. Book: Philippe Petit (“To Reach the Clouds”).
Trivia: The story was fictionalized in The Walk (2015).
Oscar: Best Documentary Feature. BAFTA: Outstanding British Film.
Last word: “Most people in New York have a dim recollection of Philippe, even if they weren’t there when he did his ‘stunt’. It’s part of New York folklore. I met Philippe for the first time in spring of 2006. He was never going to say, ‘Okay, make the film’; you had to pass a few tests first. His big question was, ‘Will you make some mischief with me?’ I wanted to make it subversive and funny in the same way that what he did was subversive and funny. He’s not the easiest person to collaborate with. He’s very fastidious, and if you’re dealing with people with very strong opinions – like I have too – it’s not always going to be hunky-dory. At the end of it, we both become very good friends. But it wasn’t always that way.” (Marsh, Time Out)