'Man on Wire" is indeed a crowd-pleaser.
When it played earlier this year at the Triangle's own Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, it won over the packed house with its story of Philippe Petit, a French tightrope artist who got a bunch of associates together in 1974 and hatched the tightrope-walking coup of the country: walking a tightrope between the World Trade Center's north and south towers, 1,350 feet above Manhattan.
The opening moments of "Wire" are gleefully deceptive, as a group of men climb into a van, tense and nervous, and drive through New York to the towers. "Fear was in the air," one of the men recalls about that August day. If this were any other documentary, you know these scenes would foreshadow the tragedy that would soon follow. (Sweaty, shady men. A van. World Trade Center. What would you think?)
But "Wire," which also won a couple of awards at Sundance this year, is far from a chronicle of a national tragedy. Instead, it chronicles a fantastic, even wacky moment in time. Petit rounds up childhood friends, French, American and Australian accomplices and even a man on the inside to make his mission of walking the towers -- a dream he's had ever since he saw a picture of the not-yet-built buildings in a newspaper when he was a boy -- a reality. After all, the man already made successful, crowd-attracting and highly illegal walks between cathedrals in Paris and bridges in Sydney. What's another 110 stories in the air, right?
While "Wire" is billed as a documentary, you immediately sense that director James Marsh ("The King") also sees this as his own '70s-style caper flick. Most of the movie has Marsh re-creating that faithful day, as Petit and his crew hide in plain sight to avoid the looming cops and security guards patrolling the area. While these scenes do dispense a pleasing amount of suspense, they're still not as giddy and excitable as the subject himself. Even as he's approaching 60, the eccentric, enthusiastic Petit still sounds as if he just did the WTC walk a few days ago.
While some may ask themselves why would this attention-craving whack-job take on a feat so dangerous, Marsh dares not peg him as a nut. He obliterates any armchair psychoanalysis and just sees Petit as a man so dedicated and steadfast in achieving his goals that everyone he comes in contact with -- from his girlfriend to his colleagues to the cops who pick him up after his high-wire walks -- has to give him props. (FYI: Next month's Esquire has an interview with him and his longtime friend, filmmaker Werner Herzog. Just the fact that those two know each other explains so much about the dude.)
Ultimately, Petit saw the towers as a symbol of wondrous opportunity. To him, walking high in the sky between them was more than a challenge, it was an honor. And with that, "Man on Wire" becomes a more fitting, respectful tribute to the complex -- and the sad day it fell -- than any of the times Giuliani mentioned it when he was running for president.