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On Balance, 'Man on Wire' Reflects a Gentler Time

Philippe Petit travels between the twin towers in
Philippe Petit travels between the twin towers in "Man on Wire." (Jean Louis Blondeau - Polaris)
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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 8, 2008

The documentary "Man on Wire" opens with a grainy black-and-white reenactment of events that transpired in August 1974, when French high-wire artist Philippe Petit and a group of friends infiltrated the newly built World Trade Center, armed with hundreds of pounds of equipment, a harebrained scheme and an astonishing amount of hubris. As the participants narrate what's happening on-screen, the story quickly takes on the taut urgency of a thriller. Then suddenly, the film inserts a jarring color shot of Ground Zero.

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But wait: The desolate pit we see isn't the scar left after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It's a photograph of the WTC construction zone in 1966. Thus does "Man on Wire" work its singular form of revisionism: In an era whose iconic imagery is of the towers coming down, it presents the radical image of the towers going up. "Man on Wire" tells a gripping, improbably affecting story but also a deeply cathartic one, as a place of loss and grief is transformed, briefly, into a place of transcendence and lyricism.

Petit, an experienced busker in Paris, had already done high-wire stunts at Notre Dame cathedral and the Sydney Harbor Bridge when he began to plan how he and several accomplices would enter the WTC with ungainly bags of tools and building plans, string a cable and guy wires between the towers, then walk across it -- all, except for that last part, without being noticed. Interviewing Petit and his former girlfriend as well as his accomplices, filmmaker James Marsh does a superb job of raising the stakes to the appropriate life-and-death degree.

The team had holes, it is revealed, including pockets of mistrust that would come into play as the plot progressed. In terms of logistics alone, what would later be called "the artistic crime of the century" was nearly impossible, starting with how the men would manage to get inside the restricted floors of the guarded towers. (One participant recalls how they put lots of pens in their shirt pockets to look like Americans.)

And the stunt -- 1,350 feet above the ground, without a net -- was by far the most dangerous Petit had ever attempted. Using footage of the aerialist's past performances and rehearsals in France, as well as Petit's theatrical recounting of his memories, Marsh creates a compelling portrait not just of a discrete past event but also of a man, still impishly youthful as he approaches 60, who seems to have been beamed from another planet, where obsession, physical discipline and an ethereal relationship to space and the built environment are the order of the day.

"Man on Wire" also features lots of reenactments, which have become something of a scourge in nonfiction filmmaking. Here, they work unobtrusively to illustrate the tick-tock of how this merry band of insurgents meticulously mounted an invasion of the towers, not to bring them down but to invest them with pure, playful joy. (Not everyone was amused: Petit was arrested immediately after the stunt, which was the subject of consternation among police and some inconvenienced passersby.) One of the film's greatest strengths is that no one ever explicitly mentions Sept. 11; instead, the film is suffused with a subtle, gentle mournfulness all the more elegiac for being left unsaid.

And, by keeping his focus strictly on Petit's act of balletic derring-do, Marsh makes "Man on Wire" a celebration -- of creativity, friendship, commitment and finally just one man and his cockeyed dream. Marsh was lucky to have in Petit an unusually expressive narrator of his own life: He routinely jumps up to act out a particularly hair-raising episode, such as when he and his aides-de-camp waited for hours in the dark while a WTC security guard patrolled their deserted floor.

It all makes for an absorbing, mischievously amusing yarn, whose climax unfolds with unexpected emotional force. It's understandable when Petit's best friend, Jean-Louis Blondeau, breaks down during his recollection of the day: The event, as an occasion of both beauty and supreme narcissism, possessed that much overwhelming power. (To which the stunt's surprising denouement attests: Everyone who took part had his or her life changed forever.)

There's no doubt that Petit's act was that of an artist, who with supreme technical skill took a piece of public space and transformed it into a place of personal expression. But thanks to Marsh's assured, sensitive storytelling, "Man on Wire" manages to put Petit's performance into another, more ineffable realm: What began as a caper turned into poetry, and poetry became a prayer.

Man on Wire (94 minutes, in English and French with subtitles, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some sexuality and nudity, and some drug references.

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