Friday, September 12, 2008

Man On Wire (Rhoades)

‘Man on Wire’ Is Well-Balanced Documentary

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Back in 1974 I got a crick in my neck staring up at the death-defying high-wire act taking place in New York City, a man walking a tightrope between the then-standing World Trade Center buildings.

I could barely breath.

This unsanctioned event has been called “the artistic crime of the century.”

The fascinating documentary “Man on Wire” – which opens today at the Tropic Cinema – offers some of that same hold-your-breath excitement as it details the risky career of French aerialist Philippe Petit.

Petit started off working as a street juggler in Paris. Improving on his act, he became a tightrope walker, unicyclist, magician, and pantomime artist. By the early ’70s he was juggling and walking a slack-rope in New York’s Washington Square Park.

There he became obsessed with the idea of walking a high wire between the Twin Towers.
With “Man on Wire,” British director James Marsh follows the ups-and-downs (pun intended) of Petit as he prepares to pull off this far-fetched caper. Planning took six years. He snuck into the buildings several times, often posing as a construction worker, once as a writer for an architectural magazine. He even made aerial photographs from a helicopter, using them to build a scale-model of the edifices to help him figure out how to get the cable across the 140-foot chasm between the Twin Towers. A bow and arrow, it turns out.

Then on August 7, 1974, Petit’s associates rigged a 450-pound tightrope cable between the towers of the still-under-construction World Trade Center, and he spent 45 minutes inching his way back and forth across the wire, dancing, kneeling, even lying down, a 26-foot-long balancing pole in hand, before the police finally convinced him to come down.
Philippe Petit was arrested for his audacious feat, but the Port Authority, which owned the towers, considered his walk a publicity coup for a pair of enormous buildings that had been having trouble attracting tenants. For his crime, Petit was sentenced to community service – a walk over Belvedere Lake in Central Park to entertain children.
James Marsh’s documentary is meticulous in detail, replete with interviews, archival footage, and reenactments.

Yet in the wake of 9/11 there’s an eerie quality as Petit details how his team evaded World Trade Center security, shot a cable across the towers, and danced out onto the wire at airplane-level, some 1300 feet in the air.

Although a true story, it comes off somewhat like an old-fashioned caper movie. Oh that Steve McQueen were still around to star in a dramatized version of this yarn. But perhaps the documentary will serve as well.

“Man on Wire” won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at 2008’s Sundance Film Festival. [from Solares Hill]

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