Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.
This is the ninth in a series of twelve movies selected by the guys at YourFace. This is Nick’s third pick.
As it happens, I’m putting up a review of Man on Wire about 10 days before the release of a biopic version of the same story. That wasn’t by design; it just happened that this is Nick’s month and the last film he’s suggested for me evidently has a Christmas theme, so I’m saving it for December. It’s a happy coincidence. This also happens to be the only of Nick’s four suggestions that isn’t an animated movie.
Man on Wire is the story of Philippe Petit, a French wire walker who conceived of the dream of walking between the two towers of the World Trade Center. According to the documentary, Petit first came up with this notion when he first heard of the towers before they were built. That may well be true, since it would appear that he fashioned his entire life based around the idea that he would someday walk on a high wire between the two buildings.
The movie is more or less created as a film about a robbery. After all, Petit’s actions were criminal, and the film is quick to play this angle up. We learn about the planning of the attempt as well as a number of Petit’s past wire walking stunts, like between the towers of Notre Dame. Ultimately, the film builds to the walk for which Petit became world famous. The film answers a number of critical questions in terms of the basics of setting up the wire. While we’re not really instructed in how the actual cable is set up, we do get the basics.
The thing that I was the most interested in was how they got the cable between the roofs of the two buildings in the first place. The answer to that is surprisingly ingenious, and it’s not one I’ll spoil here. Suffice it to say that the method is entirely logical and ridiculously simple. I’m a little disappointed in myself that I didn’t figure it out on my own.
Regardless, Man on Wire really isn’t about the walk as much as it is about the vision of the walk between the two buildings. It’s about the manic dream that Petit had for years and that he built a great deal of his life around. There’s a level of obsession here that is both terrifying and admirable. Petit’s mania for walking between the roofs of the towers ended up involving a crew of people equally willing to break the law and be arrested for what is ultimately an artistic crime.
There are a few different ways to look at Man on Wire. One way is to look specifically at the act itself. In this respect, it’s a film that presages something like Exit Through the Gift Shop in which art becomes both an act of expression and an act of beautiful defiance of the norm. In many ways, Man on Wire is more sterile than Banksy’s film because performance art of Petit’s type is necessarily experiential and it loses something in the translation to photography and reconstruction. But it’s a legitimate way to look at the film—as a document reporting on an artistic experience.
The film can also be looked at through the lens of the personalities on camera. It’s here that the film suffers a bit. Petit, for all of his talent and ability, is kind of insufferable. I won’t deny his talents on a high wire, the dedication to his craft, or his staggering amount of guts in performing the act he did. But I think it’s fair to suggest that he’s not someone I would ever want to spend a great deal of time with. Petit comes across as entirely self-absorbed, the sort of person who infects others with his particular mania not because he wants their help but because he needs them. He comes across as someone who uses people to justify the ends he wants to reach. And while the final act might well be truly astounding and beautiful, suggesting that the ends justify the means is a slippery slope upon which I will not tread.
Of course, Man on Wire can be looked at simply as a documentary. It’s a good one. In fact, it’s a very good one. The film never drags, even if we know from the outset how it is going to end. There’s real tension in places even though we know going in that Petit did walk out on the wire between the buildings and, since he’s in the film, we know he survived. This is indicative of good filmmaking, to make a known quantity tense.
I’ll call this a win. I don’t think it’s as good as I had it made out to be and I don’t think it’s as good as all of the awards it has won, but I do think it’s worth seeing and probably worth seeing again. Solid choice, Nick, and a win. You and the boys are 7.5 for 9.
Why to watch Man on Wire: A real life adventure of danger and beauty.
Why not to watch: Everyone seems to come out better than the Philippe Petit.