(What follows is my full review, originally written for the Examiner, which was initially linked up at this spot. From now on this will be its home.)
Best of the 21st Century? (#196)
(Counting down the most acclaimed films of the decade.)
We're skipping ahead quite a few spots on the list, because Philippe Petit didn't play by the rules, and neither should we. So at #196, sure to advance (as the more recent films usually do over time)...Man on Wire, the true story of a man who walked on air, 1,368 feet of it to be exact. While observing that Petit did not play by the rules, it should not be assumed he was careless, absent-mindedly whimsical, or entirely spontaneous. His spirit may have conveyed such vivacious joie de vivre but within the impulsive performance artist was a rigorous disciplinarian. This is almost always the case with a great artist, but it's especially true of one whose art involves standing upon a thin wire, suspended between the two tallest buildings in the world, dancing 110 stories up from the pavement, where one wrong move, one ill-read gust of wind can end with the kind of flop you don't recover from.
So of course the aura of death hangs around this film, but it's a subdued background noise, one which we are only subconsciously aware of. After all, we know that Petit will survive - even if we haven't heard his marvelous story before, he's right there onscreen being interviewed, thirty years after the fact. The film even manages to make us forget, or only dimly remember, that if Petit remains alive and well, the towers which he traversed (which one might have reasonably expected to outlast the little man) are gone. That event is never addressed directly in the movie; indeed, it isn't even really addressed indirectly. Sometimes the documentary even seems to exist in a universe innocently independent of the tragedy (I never found myself thinking about the terror threat parallels as Petit and his crew avoided security in the towers).
Ye elsewhere, a weirdly, sadly tangential connection is evoked between Petit and the hijackers. Certainly, an early "scene" in which the participants describe their eerie "morning of" mood of subterfuge and steeliness carries strong connotations of terrorists bracing for action. Indeed, the "zero hour" calendar marking for Petit's plan says simply "the coup," and he watches numerous heist films to brace himself for the attempt. The extent of the planning, occurring in distant lands, existing under the radar, and involving ruses and phony identities, also calls to mind the al-Qaeda tactics, though we tend to be too involved in Petit's maneuvers to draw the connection overtly.
At any rate, as previously stated, by the time Petit and his allies (several Americans and several close French buddies) are inside the World Trade Center, on the top floor, setting up their rigging for Petit's only-hours-away crossing, we are too involved in this specific plan to draw grim parallels. Then, finally, on a foggy morning, Petit takes a deep breath and steps out onto the wire. The mist rises, a crowd gathers, and Philippe Petit begins his 45-minute performance...nearly an hour in real time, probably a moment in his mind, and an eternity for anyone who caught the spirit of the event and gaped upwards in awe (even a policeman seems dazed and vaguely moved by what he had just witnessed).
On the wire, Petit's all smiles (as the photographs - no film taken - attest): he moves, lithely and with deceptive ease, laying down, bending on one knee, walking back and forth, even gesturing to the crowd below like a benevolent guardian angel. The film, which has relied heavily (perhaps too heavily) on re-enactments till now, quietly steps back and lets the still-stunned voices of the witnesses and participants complement the mostly monochrome photos of Petit's leap of faith.
Here, after a few minutes, the lingering memories of a later date rise to the surface and settle in an aura of poignant melancholy around Petit's joyous demonstration. The crowd points and murmurs in disbelief, just as they would nearly thirty years later. A photo shows Petit on the wire, directly in between both towers, with an airplane (which almost looks to be the same size as him) soaring in the background. Here, in this one image, we can briefly sense the symmetry between tragedy and joy, negation and affirmation, destruction and liberation. In this tiny figure we have the actual, absolute, incarnate opposite of the horror which was unleashed on another bright morning. Not the organized might of a state, but one man, pushing himself to the limit, defying nature and law alike not with brute force or heartless cunning but with impishness; he is defiantly human, suspended between physical limits and spiritual release at the top of the world.
The danger, rebelliousness, and awesome skill of Petit's "coup" is worth remembering. Because even this joyful celebration had a sad falling-out. The friends who built his wings from scratch and steadied him as he got his bearings, had to watch Phillippe fly away into the vanishing horizon line, so to speak, never to return. Yes, he came down from the wire, and was whisked away by police. Charges were dropped in return for a public performance, the tightrope walker became a media hero, and he even bedded a groupie (hey, it was the 70s) while his girlfriend waited patiently for him to come back to earth. He never would. Both his lover and his friends recall, some with tears, how this was the end of their relationship with Petit. Details are left vague but it's implied that Petit's ego soared along with the rest of him, while the humbler souls who'd helped him every inch of the way could only wave goodbye.
Man on Wire is an excellent film about a beautiful gesture, one too in touch with the danger and torment of the edge to be sugary or sentimental, one too real (despite the excessive re-creations) to appear glib or manipulative. Even without relatively recent events, the movie would be moving, and the filmmakers wisely choose not to draw the parallels themselves, allowing us to do so - and also to ignore them in order to get at the universal truths which Petit's ascension of the abyss evokes. Petit not only maintained his balance between the twin towers, he also managed, philosophically, not to fall into either excessive comfort or destructive rebellion; his feat remains an inspiration to this day. If he'd fallen, of course, we'd be talking about his madness, and any film made would have been entirely different in tone. Yet if he hadn't run the risk of falling, neither his walk nor this movie would be nearly as powerful.