'Wire' an amazing feat of balance

Review A

August 08, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

A top the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the high-wire walker Philippe Petit is an epic poem in motion. In Man on Wire, the sight of his accomplishment - he walked back and forth between the towers eight times in his 1974 acrobatic feat - registers, in its own balletic way, as potently as King Kong climbing to the top of the Empire State Building.

Just as Kong humanized that milestone piece of architecture, Petit did this one. Many New Yorkers thought the World Trade Center too stark, even arrogant; Petit revealed its capacity for poetry. And the director of Man on Wire, James Marsh, through close collaboration with Petit, makes us experience the towers as if they were natural phenomena, like the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls. When the wind whips through them, it's as if a Tolkien giant has been breathing deeply. Yet there is Philippe smiling mischievously, graceful as the Silver Surfer and defiant as Mick Jagger.

This movie about Petit's achievement is a gust of fresh air, offering the inner workings of a lark that put a man's life at risk - and also made him immortal. It not only brings the World Trade Center back to life in all its glory, but summons a pre-Iraq War America and a pre-Giuliani New York City, a country and a city of anarchic highs and lows, where citizens felt anything could happen.

Petit celebrates the World Trade Center in his walk, but he also subverts it as a symbol of corporate power. It becomes his play-space in the sky and his gift to the citizens who gaze at it starry-eyed, for free.

One of the favorite sayings of journalists and politicians is "You don't want to see how the sausage is made." Marsh's movie says you do want to see how a miracle is made, even if the details can be just as unsavory.

It quickly sketches his earlier feats of walking between the spires of the Notre Dame Cathedral and the northern pylons of Sydney Harbour Bridge. Although he obviously adores the limelight, he sickens of the controversy; if he's going to run up against (to his mind) petty authorities, he might as well set his sights sky-high.

And the way Marsh tells the story (from Petit's own memoir, To Reach the Clouds), he hoped the World Trade Center crossing would be his crowning achievement from the moment news of its design hit Europe, in 1968.

For Petit to fulfill his dream he must rely on the kindness of strangers and the hard work, inventiveness and forbearance of old friends. It helps Man on Wire as cinema that he and his French pals are handsome and spirited.

It helps Man on Wire as comedy-drama that his American friends are quirky or unreliable or earthbound - even a New York street performer loyal to Petit is spooked by his ambition. The crew's most useful Yank may be their inside man at the World Trade Center, helping them counterfeit papers, lending them his phone number, giving them a place to go before their final ascent - and, for American audiences, bringing back the early 1970s simply with the extravagance of his mustache.

Marsh is one of the few directors who knows that on film, poetry must have sturdy bearings. He gives Man on Wire a heck of a launch pad, dramatizing the choices Petit and his crew made, their misfires, their ingenuity, the way friendship and love waxes and wanes yet reignites again for a moment of glory. The only concrete question he completely ignores is how Petit paid for the enterprise; in an interview, Marsh told me he had planned to film an explanatory sequence in which juggler Francis Brunn, a German, gave Petit a suitcase-full of Deutschmarks.

If any sequence had to be sacrificed for the budget, Marsh was right to choose that one. The movie is about how a vision nurtured on a shoestring and in the dark can bloom into grandeur. It overflows with emotion, but in an unsentimental and Gallic way; things change abruptly for everyone in the story.

Petit celebrates by making love with an unknown beauty who offers herself up as a welcoming gesture and a prize; his girlfriend knows it's over between the two of them, anyway.

Petit poured everything of himself and of his group's belief in him into his conquest of the second and third tallest buildings on earth. They shared in his moment of transcendence - and thanks to Marsh, now we can, too.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

ONLINE

See a preview of Man on Wire at baltimoresun.com/manonwire

Man on Wire

(Magnolia Pictures)

A documentary by James Marsh. Rated PG-13 for some sexuality and nudity, and drug references. Time 95 minutes.

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