Monday, February 23, 2009

Man on Wire Wins Best Documentary

By Steve EvansSeeing this amazing film capture the Documentary Oscar was the best part of slogging through the Academy Awards ceremony last night.

After three hours of pomposity and maudlin sentiment, I enjoyed having the hell surprised out of me when Man on Wire, the adventures of a high-wire daredevil, was announced the winner. In a crowning touch, acrobat-aerialist Phillippe Petit, the impish focus of the film, leaped onstage to snatch the award from producers James Marsh and Simon Chinn. He then balanced the golden Oscar on his head. Bravo!

Man on Wire recounts the outrageous true story of Frenchman Petit, who on Aug. 7, 1974, six days shy of his 25th birthday, stepped out on a wire rigged illegally between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center – at the time the world’s tallest buildings. He danced from one end of the 200-foot span to the other and back again eight times, at a height of nearly 1,400 feet above the streets of New York. In photographs, his smile is positively beatific.

At one point, he eased his body onto the wire and laid on his back, staring at the skies. Then Petit stood, knelt on the wire with one knee and offered a cheerful salute to the astonished crowd squinting at him from the streets far below. After more than 45 minutes of this death-defying mischief, Petit returned to the top of the North Tower where he was arrested, hauled off for a psychological evaluation, and taken to jail before he was finally released to a cheering crowd that included a throng of photographers and reporters. Petit became an instant hero in what would be dubbed “the artistic crime of the century.” The stunt itself is nothing short of hypnotic, invoking equal parts terror and awestruck amazement at the pure beauty of the conception. Here is proof positive that the dedicated individual can accomplish any dream. Man on Wire is an inspiration.

The film unfolds like a heist picture. We see the intricate planning Petit and his associates put into the caper, which consumed six and a half years of his life in planning and practice. We see the technical challenges of pulling off this “coup” as Petit calls his dream. He had to come up with a way to bypass World Trade Center security; smuggle the heavy steel cable and rigging equipment into the towers; pass the wire between the two rooftops; anchor the wire and tension it to withstand the high winds and the swaying of the buildings at that heart-stopping height.

During the planning stage Petit had told his associates, "Okay. It's impossible. So let's get to work."

The rigging was done under cover of night in complete secrecy. It almost didn’t happen, as the documentary reveals in a sequence almost as suspenseful as the high-wire act itself.

At 7:15 a.m., Philippe took his first step on the wire 1,350 feet above the sidewalks of Manhattan.

Director James Marsh (below, right) brings Petit’s adventure to vivid life through recent interviews with the daredevil himself, his former lover, and most of the co-conspirators who helped him create the unique spectacle of a man walking between two skyscrapers – seemingly on thin air.

The result is a rich, multilayered story told in flashbacks with brief recreations, through the recollections of the wild-eyed men who pulled it off, and from the perspective of many individuals who witnessed the event. These multiple points of view enhance our appreciation for the sheer audacity of Petit’s high-wire act, which, in his own words, he did for no reason other than to see if it could be done.

“I had always seen the film as a ‘heist’ movie,” Marsh recalls in the film’s press notes. “We soon discovered that there were an amazing group of supporting characters involved in the plot. The testimony of Philippe’s accomplices allowed us to create multiple perspectives on the execution of this criminal enterprise with its many setbacks and conflicts. They had all been waiting 30 years to tell their part of the story….”

Marsh remembers his first meeting with the aerial acrobat and Petit’s opening shot:

“I have the mind of a criminal.”

The director says, “That was the first thing Philippe Petit told me when I met him. He then went on to show me how he could kill a man with a copy of People magazine and, before we parted, he picked my pocket. Here was an extraordinary individual who viewed the world in a unique way. Not least, from heights and views that no other man has ever seen.”

And his motivation?

“…His story is really the oldest story there is,” the director says. “It is the hero going on a journey, or quest, to test himself and achieve a seemingly impossible objective.”

As a teenage wirewalker in France during the 1960s, before the World Trade Center was built, Philippe (as he looks today, at right) learned about the planned construction by reading the French newspapers. He immediately began dreaming a reckless scheme to break into the as yet un-built towers, rig a wire between them and dance on that wire for the delight of pedestrians far below. The dream seemed impossible, a death wish.

We learn that Petit’s motivation was just the opposite, as his former lover Annie shares on camera:“He couldn’t go on living if he didn’t try to conquer those towers…it was as if they had been built specifically for him.”

Today it is almost impossible to imagine a secretive group of French bohemians breezing through JFK airport, their suitcases stocked with shackles, ropes, knives and a bow and arrow, then loitering around a major New York monument with cameras and forged ID cards waiting for a chance to break in, much less actually getting away with it.

But in the words of accomplice Jean Francois, “It may have been illegal…but it wasn’t wicked or mean.”

The result, 35 years later, remains as mesmerizing to behold as it must have seemed to the astonished witnesses in 1974. Today the world seems a somewhat smaller, less interesting place. We might feel safer with heightened security and endless airport checkpoints, yet our lives are somewhat diminished knowing that audacious bursts of mad dreaming have been curtailed almost as surely as terrorist action on American soil.

It is difficult to condone what Petit did, yet I would be the last man on earth to condemn him. This is the difference between rational intellectualism and the pure joyous emotion of bearing witness to a man fulfill his dreams in defiance of mortal danger.

Some years ago I vowed to overcome a fear of heights by parachuting from the first airplane I had ever boarded. Though it worked for me, I do not lay claim to any great achievement. My little stunt has been performed by thousands of individuals before and since. Petit’s masterpiece was unique – a one-off statement of bravado that no one will ever replicate.

Most of us would not want to.

And that is the difference between dreamers and the man who dares transform his dream into mind-blowing reality.

À la tienne, Phillippe! Le bon temp roulez.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved. Except © 2008 Jean-Louis Blondeau / Polaris Images. Photographs courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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