Early on the morning of August 7, 1974 (the day before Nixon's resignation), a French street performer and wire walker named Philippe Petit stunned New York City, and the world, by walking a high-wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center without a net. Director James Marsh's extraordinary documentary Man on Wire tells the remarkable story of Petit's journey to that wire, a dream that began when he first read about the towers before they were even constructed. As his girlfriend Annie notes, in retrospect, "It was as if they had been built especially for him."
Marsh's film, which utilizes new interviews, archival footage, and stylish black-and-white reenactments, is ingeniously constructed; it begins with Petit's haunting words, "In the middle of the night, I wake up with this nightmare..." and plunges us right in to the morning of "the coup," as it is called. From that point on, the film runs on a pair of parallel timelines: one, the story (in personal history and logistical planning) of how he got to that wire, and the other, a point-by-point explanation of exactly how they pulled it off. The biography and background is as skillfully assembled as any smart documentary. The reconstruction is as suspenseful and enthralling as a good heist picture.
That it manages to extract some tension from a story we know the end of (I don't think I'm spoiling--the posters show a famous photo of Petit on the wire, and besides, it wouldn't be much of a movie if they hadn't brought it off) speaks to the skill of Marsh's filmmaking; I can seldom get behind reenactments in any documentary that isn't directed by Errol Morris (too often, they reek of bad television), but these sequences are briskly cut and beautifully shot, from the vivid imagery of the security guards' languidly moving shadows to the dreamlike image of the wire plummeting out of their grip. Like any quality documentary, it tells a good story intelligently (and uncovers valuable history--I had never heard of Petit's feat until the film came out), but the thriller elements of the parallel timeline help give Man on Wire a quality often elusive to non-fiction films: It's fun to watch.
Petit himself also has a lot to with that. One of the most important elements of an involving doc is that it includes good natural "characters," and the animated Frenchman certainly qualifies. He is a robust, excitable type, full of vigor and enthusiasm, and he attracts an entertaining group of followers and accomplices--many of them given caper-picture titles like "The Inside Man" and "The Australian." One of them, American Jim Moore, says of his participation, "It just sounded like a really fun adventure," and that just about sums it up. Thanks to a remarkable library of old documentary footage, shot by film students and friends, we see him training for and executing his two big run-ups to the WTC walk: a 1971 walk between the two towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral, and his 1973 walk above the Sidney Harbor Bridge in Sydney, Australia.
But that was all leading up to that August morning in New York, and for both Petit and the film, it's a magnificent payoff. The footage and pictures (particularly as they are edited with the lovely score) are remarkable, but just as thrilling (and more poignant) are his friends' descriptions of their feeling watching him go--it all floods back to them, all of the fear and anticipation of that event, and the beauty and emotion of that moment. (It provides a much more powerful ending than the one which is notably absent--there is no mention or imagery from 9/11, which is a tasteful, admirable choice.) What's remarkable about Man on Wire is the degree to which we feel the same way as his friends. I've seldom seen a documentary as purely involving as this one, and it's not a mere case of empathy--quite the opposite, in fact, as I'm deathly afraid of heights and can't imagine something more insane than what Petit does. But by the end of the film, he has come to represent something more than himself; he's the dreamer, perhaps foolish beyond all reason, but dedicated and determined and in love with the idea of conquering something bigger than himself. There's a part of all of us that would like to be like that, and that's what ultimately makes this rich, moving film so very powerful.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Man on Wire was released on standard-def DVD by Magnolia Home Entertainment in December of 2008, but the company inexplicably refused to release a Blu-ray version (even after the film won Best Documentary at February's Academy Awards). However, Icon Home Entertainment has released a Blu-ray version in the UK which is coded region-free.
The 1.85:1 image comes to Blu-ray via the MPEG-4 AVC codec, and as with most documentaries, the film is sometimes at the mercy of the source materials--grainy footage of the WTC construction, of Petit in training, of his walks. There also appears to be a bit of stretching; the construction footage is seen in winged 4x3, but some of the 16mm footage of Petit at work appears to have been pulled out to widescreen. That complaint aside, the vintage footage has been mostly well-preserved and is fairly sharp. The interviews and new color footage (such as the views of Notre Dame and Paris) are crisp and good-looking; color temperatures and skin tones are excellent, though there are occasional (very slight) compression artifacts on some backgrounds. The reenactments are shot with a high-contrast black-and-white look that is somehow both grainy and beautifully clean. Overall, Man on Wire is one of the most uniquely stylized documentaries in recent memory, and, in this reviewer's opinion, it's worth the trouble of tracking down this import in order to enjoy the images in their full HD glory.
The DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track (in English with portions in subtitled French) is satisfying, though flawed. The track makes good use of its surround channels (particularly in the use of directional effects during the reenactments), and, for the most part, there are no issues with audibility--the interviews are clear and intelligible. The problem is, as good as the music is, it isn't always well-modulated; during some of the more dramatic music, the cue overwhelms the interview audio and knocks the mix out of balance. It only happens a couple of times, and then only briefly, but it is an issue.
A Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is also available, as are English Hard of Hearing subtitles and an audio description option.
There's not an abundance of bonus features, but those that are offered are choice. First is a Blu-ray exclusive: an Audio Commentary with director James Marsh, producer Simon Chinn, and executive producer Jonathan Hewes. It's a real treat; the three men speak engagingly and passionately about the film, imparting a good deal of background and detail about the conception and execution of the project.
The remaining features are all available on the DVD as well. First is "Sydney Harbour Bridge Crossing" (20:16), which mixes new interviews and B-roll with vintage documentary footage (shot by James Rickerson) of the preparation and execution of that stunt. It's an entertaining and worthwhile sidebar to the feature. "Phillipe Petit Interview" (9:52) is an interesting supplemental interview of the primary subject; conducted after the film's completion, it gives him the opportunity to offer up his thoughts on the final project. Finally, we have "The Man Who Walked Between the Towers" (10:19) a charming 2005 animated short film, clearly geared towards children, narrated by Jake Gyllenhaal. It's a little goofy, but is a nice extra for parents, I suppose.
When Petit came off the wire that August morning, the question he was asked most was "Why?" In his interviews, he mocks the simplicity of the question as typical American literalism--he did it as an act, a work of art, a thing of beauty. But in the final voice over of this exceptional film, he answers that question, in his own way. Unlike a more conventional documentary, Man on Wire goes on long enough to get that out of him, and that's the kind of moment that makes the picture transcend its roots. It is a riveting, dramatic, exhilarating story.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.