It was possibly the most audacious stunt of the 20th century: French-born tightrope-walker Philippe Petit, along with a team of friends, snuck into the World Trade Center, rigged a tightrope between the two towers and did what he does best for the people of New York City for 45 minutes. In the process, he became an instant legend. Even today, looking at the photos of his insane act of artistry cause you to hold your breath a bit.
James Marsh’s documentary of this event, Man on Wire, is similar to Petit himself: a bit too aware of its own importance in the cultural landscape. Petit may be lots of things, but humble ain’t one of ’em, and he absolutely relishes the retelling of his escapades in the August heat of 1974. Marsh even films the whole thing in faux crime-movie fashion, with black-and-white reenactments interspersed throughout. It’s all a bit overdone, and the intro unfortunately takes on the aftertaste of poor showmanship: Before we’re even aware of who Petit is or what he accomplished, a flashback shows all the protagonists loading their gear into an inauspicious-looking van, hinting that they’re about to do something for which they could all be arrested. (Given the history of the World Trade Center and vans, was that really the best approach? Incidentally, the eventual fate of the Twin Towers is never addressed—a questionable decision.)
Petit’s accomplishment had more of an impact on New York than you’d ever discover from watching Man on Wire. Ultimately, Marsh’s film is just too insular to have any relevance for the uninitiated. Apart from a completely unrevealing interview with the then-World Trade Center Association president, the only people interviewed are Petit’s accomplices and friends. (Spoiler alert: All thought he was crazy to do it, and all thought his achievement was amazing!) And the film’s final reenactment—Petit cheating on his girlfriend with a groupie—is head-scratching in its intent. After showing a man walking with the gods, why all of a sudden give him a dick of clay?
Man on Wire is an amazing story, to be sure, but the telling renders it mostly earthbound.