Traversing the Towers In a Moment of Joy

Philippe Petit discusses his famous walk on a wire between the Towers at the World Trade Center. The walk, the morning of August 7, 1974, is the subject of a new documentary "Man on Wire." He is sitting next to the film's director, James Marsh. Video by David Segal/The Washington Post
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 2008


In the bad old, nearly bankrupt days of the mid-'70s, a French guy padded across a steel cable strung between the tippity top of the World Trade Center towers, holding a balancing pole and grinning. Police rushed to the roof of the buildings, but he ignored them, choosing instead to pirouette, talk to the seagulls and revel in the size of his gathering audience. He surrendered after 45 minutes and was arrested for trespassing.

By that afternoon, he was a national hero.

Unlike most urban legends, the truth about this caper -- which unfolded the morning of Aug. 7, 1974 -- exceeds the mythology. Which makes sense, because even those vaguely familiar with Philippe Petit and his oddball posse of collaborators have probably never considered the subterfuge behind their feat. How do you sneak roughly a ton of equipment into what were already a pair of heavily guarded buildings? How do you string several hundred pounds of wire between skyscrapers, without anyone noticing? Those questions, it turns out, were just as vexing as more obvious problems, like, how could you possibly take that very first step?

"Scared is such a little word," says Petit. "Terror is much more noble."

Now 58, Petit has kept his reddish hair and the merveilleux accent first heard when he explained, "There is no why," to reporters who kept asking the same question. Nor has he lost the grandiloquence that adds drama and a sense of personal destiny to just about everything that comes out of his mouth.

"I didn't choose America," he says, when asked why he stayed in this country for the past three decades. "America chose me."

On Saturday, he sat on a sofa at the SoHo Grand Hotel and reminisced about "my coup," as he calls it, which gets the full-length documentary treatment in "Man on Wire." The film, to be released in August, is screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, now in its second week.

In 89 minutes of vintage footage, interviews and reenactments, "Wire" recounts the story of Petit, then a 24-year-old street performer, and his co-conspirators, some of them Frenchmen who don't speak English, others Americans who don't speak French. (One of them, a musician, shows up stoned for an aborted first attempt.) They spend months fine-tuning their scheme, which ultimately includes disguises, scale models, reams of notes, a bow and arrow and some 200 preparatory visits to the towers.

Petit comes across as a merrily obsessed performance artist who seems to believe the towers were built tantalizingly close and vertiginously high to dare him, personally, to traverse the gap. He has a cockamamie-sounding scheme and a simple goal: to interrupt the nation's regularly scheduled programming for an interlude of pure and pointless delight.

"It's very subversive but also very innocent," says the movie's director, James Marsh, who is seated next to Petit. "They are committing a crime, but they're giving something to the people of New York, a performance, a miracle, a vision. It's something naughty and yet it harms nobody. They just want to create a beautiful moment."

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