Review of Man on Wire directed by James Marsh
Man on Wiretells the story of Philippe Petit and his successful wire-walking attempt across the two World Trade Center towers on August 7, 1974. The film uses a combination of archival footage and photos, recreations, and interviews with Philippe and his co-conspirators. I say co-conspirators because the crossing required some subterfuge among a number of individuals.
The filmmakers use a framing device where they begin with the men entering the World Trade center under assumed identities. They then leave the men hiding under tarps to avoid detection by guards while they fill in the back story. The technique would be great if this were a narrative treatment, but I found it a bit confusing. I kept thinking that they were just getting their equipment in place for a later attempt.
The feat itself is worthy of admiration. This wasn't a spur of the moment decision. It was an obsession that had begun before the towers were even built. The story of how they pulled it off is a compelling one. It would have been great had they documented the crossing with more live video, but the still images and recreations help to fill in the missing footage.
The film touches on Philippe's background. He was a street performer in France where he entertained as a mime, juggler, and wire walker. He had a single-minded focus on attempting the crossing between the two towers. If there was something missing from the film, it was an explanation of how he managed to fund himself before and after the event. Other than a brief period of fame immediately after the event, I don't see how he benefited. His co-conspirators certainly didn't benefit. One was deported.
This documentary is up for an Academy award in the best documentary category. It is considered a front runner. I can't comment on that since I have not seen the other entries, which is too bad because I would have loved to have seen all five films. My favorite documentary from last year remains Dear Zachary.