While it was still standing, I had the opportunity and good fortune to stand on top of the World Trade Centre. It’s not exactly the most exhilarating thing for someone who has an intense fear of heights to do. It was terrifying. So frightened was I, that my legs stopped working properly and I had to be helped around the observation deck by my parents. So I know how high the World Trade Centre was. So you’d imagine seeing a film about a crazy Frenchman who had the insane ambition to tight-rope walk between the towers wouldn’t be something I’d jump at. However, James Marsh’s documentary, Man On Wire was released last week, so I checked it out.
In 1974, Frenchman Phillipe Petit and a few accomplices managed to find a way to sneak themselves and a load of equipment to the top of the almost complete World Trade Centre. Petit had the crazy ambition of setting up a wire between the towers and walking from one tower to the other. Having tight-rope walked between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral, and two of the towers on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, The World Trade Centre tight-rope walk was to be Petit’s most ambitious and dangerous stunt.
James Marsh’s documentary really is an inspirational piece of work. Through interviews with Petit and his friends and accomplices, we are given a picture of how crazy this stunt really was. It was a different time in the world. Something as dangerous and illegal as breaking into the towers and setting up a stunt over night could never be achieved with today’s strict security measures. This was a once in a lifetime attempt. If anything went wrong, if there was any mishap, the best the men could hope for was to be arrested. But even despite this, Petit’s friends had their doubts about the stunt. They feared for their friend’s life, and some abandoned the challenge, wanting no part in what could be his death.
Marsh recreates the events of the day in question very well. The fact that we know Petit survives in no way takes away from the suspense of the film. Petit’s quite an eccentric character and is extremely energetic in the way he recounts his adventure. And in this, you can’t quite help but like the guy. His accomplices, some French, some American, one Australian are a little more subdued in the way they tell their story, yet this just adds more to Petit’s character. Even in his sixties, Petit retains the energy of his thirties, gesticulating wildly, and leaping back onto the high wire.
While there is no actual footage of the high wire walk, there are plenty of photographs. And they are no less terrifying than footage. Suffering from an intense fear of heights, with every shot of the ground from the top of the tower, I felt a little wave of nausea. Every shot of Petit on the wire made me cringe. Marsh’s direction is absolutely successful in this respect. There’s no moment where the film becomes dull. Petit’s passion for not only his wire-walking but for life in general keeps the film fresh throughout the running time. And at ninety minutes, it’s brief, but rightfully so. We don’t feel bogged down in exposition or post-walk fame, despite both these aspects being covered.
While Man On Wire seems to be overlooked in terms of documentary this year, it’s a very interesting, compelling and inspirational film. And even though I had fears going in, it was great to see such a terrifying and daring stunt covered so extensively.