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Bumbling Towards Ecstacy: Man on Wire



By Deirdre Devers.

Truth really is stranger than fiction. Our 21st century mediascape is saturated with personal and very public spectacles that are so commonplace as to become low wattage visual fodder. There’s the live coverage of David Blaine’s test of endurance whilst frozen in a block of ice in Times Square. Or the everyman that appears weekly on TV eating cow eyeballs or rushing through an insect-infested obstacle course in a different type of endurance test. The thrill is gone. The ubiquity of the media shows us people pushing themselves to extremes or being pushed to extremes on an almost daily basis. We’ve seen it all (or some permutation) before. The extraordinary has become ordinary.

However, Man on Wireis a documentary that feels extraordinary because it is extraordinary. British director James Marsh chose as his subject Philippe Petit’s 1974 high wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The wiry, rebellious Petit was just 24-years-old when he pulled off this audacious feat sans the consent of the World Trade Center. The covert operation involving an international network of accomplices enabled Petit to make eight crossings at 1,350 feet above the heads of New Yorkers one August morning. Petit was, at one point, literally sitting amongst the clouds.

Using interviews with Petit himself and his accomplices, actual footage of Petit’s preparations, and reconstructions, Marsh presents Petit’s spectacular Twin Towers balancing act as a crime caper. How did the impish street performer pull it off? Why the obsessive need to commune with the Towers in a potentially deadly act?

Whilst the focus is on Petit’s quixotic quest, the impossible would not have been possible without the unwavering dedication of his close friend Jean-Louis and then girlfriend Anne who provided Petit’s emotional bedrock during the 6 years of planning for this feat. Some semi-random Americans, in the form of a professional pothead and a hanger-oner, contribute to the implausibility of the successful execution of this spectacle.

Michael Nyman’s music, though heard elsewhere in The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover, makes an extremely effective appearance to build towards the climactic conclusion.

Films such as Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, Paul Greengrass’ United 93 and the Naudet Brothers documentary 9/11 have all had the events of September 11, 2001 as their focus. Could Man on Wire be the film that stirs a shift in the perception of the Twin Towers so that they are once again celebrated as an inspiring, architectural marvel in a film that showcases one man’s inspirational performance on buildings that he found intensely inspirational? Only time will tell.

Deirdre Devers is a researcher of screen cultures, specifically digital games and film.

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