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FILM REVIEW: Man on a Wire

Hero on High: Documentary of Philippe Petit’s incredible coup inspires human spirit

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Man on a Wire
A documentary directed by James Marsh
Rated PG-13

Watching the documentary Man on a Wire seven years after the fall of the Twin Towers sends chills down the spine: There is no other way to put it.

The artistic coup described in this documentary is awe-inspiring and exhilarating, nothing short of a celebration of human potential and fearlessness.

French performance artist Philippe Petit, with the assistance of a team of friends and accomplices, smuggled steel cable and rigging all the way to the top of what was then the highest pair of buildings in the world.

Under cover of night, avoiding guards, they passed the cable between the towers — no easy feat in itself, given the 140-foot gap between the towers and the weight of the steel cable — and anchored it at both ends.

Then, just after 7 a.m. on Aug. 7, 1974, Philippe stepped out onto the high wire. For the next 45 minutes, he crossed back and forth between the towers, even lying down in the middle to watch a gull circling above. Crowds gathered on the sidewalk to watch a lone human figure, so high above them that he was scarcely more than a dot in the sky, dance as if on air.

The film, directed by James Marsh, won acclaim at both the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and the 2008 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C. It describes Philippe’s early fascination with the towers, which began before they were built, and follows him as he performed precursors to the act, including high wire walks between the towers of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia.

The methodical planning and implementation of the coup that Philippe and his team engaged in upon their arrival in New York — including observation of the security practices at the towers, drawing schematics of the buildings, and carrying in cable and rigging under the guise of being contractors — carries a sizzling undercurrent when viewed from the perspective of a post 9/11 world.

What the team was doing was very much illegal (and, in fact, they were arrested and Philippe subjected to psychiatric evaluation afterward), but the intent of their act was not to terrify but to inspire, to demonstrate the human spirit in a magnificent way that almost anyone would have said was impossible had it not actually been done.

It was a transient act of beauty that disquiets something deep inside. 1974 was a funny time.

Right on the cusp between a seemingly more innocent time and the digital revolution, it was a year when people needed to look up and be inspired.

The same argument could apply today.

Philippe Petit et al. accomplished their coup without the aid of microprocessors or corporate sponsors. It was a Robin Hood-like act, against the law and rife with risk, but ultimately harming none.

As he was being taken into custody, Philippe slipped off the watch from the wrist of one of the arresting officers. There is just something so deliciously subversive in that: a subtle reminder of the potential of the individual to overcome whatever obstacles present themselves. Man on Wire, through its documentary style of presenting commentary from the parties involved in the heist, or coup, or performance art — however one chooses to describe it — does a wonderful job of showing the mixed motivations and emotions involved.

No one on the team wanted to be arrested, although they understood that was inevitable, but at the same time they felt carried along by something far larger than themselves.

They needed to see Philippe up there, just once.

Man on a Wire opens Friday at the Terrace Theatre. Jason A. Zwiker is a Charleston journalist who blogs at zwiker.blogspot.com.

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