In the late 60s and early 70s, Philippe Petit was a busker. He did pantomime, rode a unicycle, did magic tricks, juggled, walked a tightrope - more usually, a rather slack rope strung between two poles or trees, whatever he could find - and juggled on the unicycle, and juggled on the rope, and even juggled on the unicycle on the rope. He was a showman, a pretty good one, and also a rebel - busking was illegal in Paris, where he worked, and he was often arrested. He liked that about what he had chosen to do.
But what he was passionate about, really passionate, was high wire walking. It's all very well to be a funambulist, but there aren't a lot of places outside the circus where it can be done. So Philippe, ever the performer, looked for dramatic, public places to string his wire and walk. He walked between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral and was arrested as soon as he stepped off. In 1973 he walked between the towers of the Sydney Harbour bridge in Australia, over rush hour traffic, and was arrested again. It was exciting and counterculture and daring and fun, and he loved it.
But the walk that he really wanted to do was between the Twin Towers in New York City, and it's the subject of this amazing 2008 documentary.
Petit had seen a small picture of the towers in a newspaper in 1968, and immediately became consumed by the idea of stringing a tightrope between the buildings and stepping out onto it. He visited New York several times with friends and accomplices to view the site, and once even talked his way on to the roof of the buildings by posing as a journalist. He knew it would not be easy to gain access to the buildings or to execute the stringing of the wire, but in August 1974, after six years of careful planning, he and his few conspirators were ready to pull off the stunt.
They forged identification and posed as construction workers, bringing in a 450 lb (200 kg) cable and a 26 ft (7.9 m) long, 55 lb (25 kg) balancing pole that he had had made. They came into the buildings on the afternoon of August 6, evading guards and reaching the upper floors of each tower, and when darkness fell made their way onto the roof. His friends on the other tower shot a bow and arrow across; Pierre and his accomplice attached a larger rope to it, which was pulled across, and so it went on through the night, until they were finally able to pull the huge and very heavy wire cable across. They lashed two guy lines to the roof (one on each side of the wire) to stabilize it somewhat. Finally, just after 7 AM, Petit stepped off the roof of the north tower and onto the rope. He later said that he was very close to death as he took that first step, but once he was out there he was fine. He had practiced and dreamt this many times, and he was totally confident. He crossed back and forth eight times and was on the wire about 45 minutes. In addition to walking, he lay on the wire and looked at the sky, knelt on it and gave a salute, and looked the quarter mile down to the ground. He would walk up to the tower where the police were waiting; they would ask him to come down and he would turn and dance away from them. They were angered, but also amazed. Sgt. Charles Daniels, who had been dispatched to bring him down, referred to him as a dancer, not a walker, so struck was he by how light and free and confident Petit appeared.
Petit was arrested and handcuffed when he stepped off the wire. He was taken in for psychiatric assessment - deemed fine - and then released. In court he was sentenced to performing for the children of New York, which he did at Central Park. He received a lifetime pass to the Twin Towers.
This wasn't done for publicity, and so there were no television cameras on him. Little visual evidence remains of the feat, though one of his friends on the roof had a camera, so there are a few shots of him out there, on the wire; also a few blurry images caught from cameras on the ground. Yet this movie is mesmerizing and vivid. Petit and his accomplices were interviewed and tell the incredible tale of pulling off this most unlikely of stunts. The director also uses dramatic recreations - never my favourite technique, but effective here. As M and I watched the film, we knew that he had actually done it, had actually walked on that wire, yet it seemed so unlikely that we wondered if this was actually a mockumentary. But it's not. The director, James Marsh, says that he wanted to make this movie because it's the ultimate heist story, and it is. That's exactly how it comes across: an awe-inspiring heist.
The name of the film comes from the police report: in the section, "nature of complaint", someone had scrawled "man on wire." That sums it up beautifully. Man on wire indeed.
What is never mentioned in the movie, but must be in everyone's minds as they watch, is September 11, 2001. I liked that they had left that out, because this movie is not about that awful day, but about another, very different day. Yet there's an eerie parallel between what Petit did and what those hijackers did. Both acted in secret, with just a few trusted comrades; no one outside the inner circle knew what was going to happen, so the only images we have of these momentous events were caught obliquely, by accident. One transgression was harmless, beautiful, joyous; the other horrifying, terrifying, brutal - but both were unimaginable, by the people who constructed those towers and all of us who have seen them - unimaginable until accomplished, and even then incredible, amazing, beyond belief - but true.
"Man on Wire" won an Academy Award for best documentary. At the ceremony Petit balanced the Oscar on his chin - upside down.