Monday, September 21, 2015

Your Face Pics Movies (Nick): Man on Wire

Film: Man on Wire
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.


  1. I agree with your review. It's strongly in the 4-star range. I've seen it twice and always forget that because it's such a hyped up movie that you always feel it's in the 5-star range. My girlfriend and I both agree it's a story that's probably better suited as a biopic than a documentary, so we're both actually really excited for The Walk.

    I also understand how you can find Petit annoying and pompous. He is full of himself. But I found his energy and passion engaging and infectious. I also agree that despite knowing the ending, it remains a tense film, mostly thanks to the heist-like setup.

    1. It's hard not to be impressed by the overall story of the film. It really is a hell of a story. I just wish I'd liked Petit a little more than I do. I do agree he's an engaging person, though.

  2. I generally agree with your review - Petit is someone to admire from afar. I found myself moved by the image of him between the two towers, made even more poignant by the fact that no one else will ever get to do it. Also, being terrified of heights, some parts of the film had aspects of horror for me.

    I don't know if I want to see the new film: I am intrigued, but the swishy 3D camera in the trailer has slightly put me off.

    1. "Admire from afar" is a good way to put it. He's an easy person to look at with a certain appreciation, but I think I'd want to slap him a lot.

      Actually, I really appreciate the fact that the film does not bring up the destruction of the towers. It makes what happens a suspended moment in time, and I appreciated that.

  3. I liked this quite a bit, although like Julia Mac I was cringing at some of the elements such as him laying down on the wire.

    I also agree that Petit is full of himself and I wonder if they will moderate that in the coming film.

    In regards to the cable, up until recent times that's also how people would run the first line over a river for the start of building a bridge (unless it was something like the Mississippi.)

    1. Right--as soon as the solution to stringing the main cable appeared, I just shook my head. Of course I knew how they'd do it. I just couldn't think of it.

  4. I had put off watching this for a long time because of my aversion to heights, I'm the one on the balcony pressed against the wall and looking straight out!, but over at A Fistful of Films they were looking at the Oscar winners for best picture, foreign, animated and documentary for each year since 2000 and that spurred me to give it a try. I'm glad I did.

    I liked it and found it interesting until it arrived at the actual walk and it was then that it really pulled me in. All the the details were good but it was the reactions that hooked me, the clips of the cop and the awe he experienced were so touching. I also appreciated that the participants were honest about their reservations about being involved. No false bravado along the lines of “I was always all in and believed in this totally!” expect of course Petit but then his bravado wasn't false.

    Someone else commented that he was someone to be admired from a distance and that is quite right. He is probably wearying on a constant basis but to achieve that dream required the sort of tireless commitment and passion to accomplish, so he had to be who he is.

    That's spot on about one of the trademarks of really good filmmaking is that a film maintains tension even if you know the result beforehand, it reminded me of seeing Apollo 13 in the theatre and being gripped by it even though I obviously knew how it was going to turn out. This had elements of the same.

    The upcoming JGL version looks to focus on the actual walk to make it as vertigo inducing as possible so I'll probably give it a pass.

    1. I don't love heights, but I'm not terribly phobic of them (my irrational fears lay in other directions). That didn't bother me terribly. However, I understand that fear completely.

      You won't watch the Jo-Go version of this for the same reason I'll never see Buried and will probably never rewatch The Vanishing.

      Good point about the other people in the film. I liked that they had so many reservations and were so honest about it. In a way, that makes the whole crazy enterprise that much more crazy that it actually happened.