By now the only think people think of when they hear the words “World Trade Center” is something drenched in misery and sadness and that’s okay. Watching a national symbol be terrorized and burnt to the ground while so many died is in every way terrible. While Hollywood tried to help the country cope in its own way with films like World Trade Center or United 93, only one film after the tragedy has shown reverence for what once was with a warm fondness and beautiful joy. Man on Wire is about Frenchman Philippe Petit – wirewalker, unicyclist, magician, and street performer – remembering his wild journey through life as a wirewalker and his greatest of feats when in 1974 he strung a wire and walked the air between the two towers. Petit’s story is amazing and magical and lends itself not only to remembering the buildings as they were at their completion but also to providing something soothing to ease and comfort the mind as if he were telling some fun story about a departed loved one, a story that helps you keep love and warm memories alive in your heart.
Petit’s first memory of seeing the Towers was during a visit to the dentist’s office on account of a sore tooth. It was a magazine article about the current construction of what would one day be the tallest buildings in the world accompanied by a drawing of the Towers: so he took a pencil and drew a line connecting the rooftops. That day he left the dentist with the stolen article ripped from the magazine instead of a relieved jaw. Having performed wire stunts in many other amazing places, Petit knew this was to be his masterpiece. And so the film describes Petit and a crew of friends meticulously planning the forgivably illegal stunt of stringing a wire between the World Trade Center buildings. Petit jumps around the studio during his interview with such zeal as recounts the realization of his epic dream-come-true that it could easily have happened yesterday rather that over thirty years ago. And if that isn’t any indication of just how momentous and awe-inspiring Petit’s glorious dance on air was, then seeing it through the eyes of those who saw it first hand surely will, crying almost four decades after the fact at the very thought of how stunning it was to witness.
Director James March uses all resources to his advantage and then some, compiling seamlessly a collection of original films and photos as well as reenactments and animated interviews of Petit and his accomplices. Though documentaries often have slow if not languid pacing, Marsh fills up every moment with something to watch making sure to balance silly and giddy scenes with those that are breathtaking and transcendent. His finest moment, and likely the one that won him the Oscar for the film, is his narrative choice to not mention the events of 9/11. Early in Man on Wire there is footage of the construction of the Towers, starting from its massive bare footprints and watching through time-lapse the addition of beams and rafters and concrete and windows; it makes for a lovely albeit bittersweet moment. Instead of telling the audience that it should feel sad and morose, it serves rather as the perfect prelude for a story about joyful triumph.