Generally, the type of documentaries that get noticed are modeled after an episode of “60 minutes.” They are hard-hitting, well-researched, “the next two hours could change the rest of your life” type of thing. Reviewers recommend them, often quiet enthusiastically, not because they’re well-made, but because they really feel like you need to take in their information and let it change the way you live your life. A great example of this was Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth:” critics raved about it, it won Oscars, everyone talked about it, but cinematically, it was little more than a guy giving a Powerpoint presentation. You need to see it, but there’s not a reason in the world to see it more than once.
Then there are the rare documentaries you can watch over and over. They rise above the news genre and function as good cinema, pure and simple. Remember the magic of “Spellbound?” These films are not news items given lots of time and attention; they’re character driven, patiently observed stories, stories that happen to be true. Last year “King of Kong” was like that, and was one of my favorite films of 2007. This year, it’s “Man on Wire.”
This is the story of Phillipe Petite, the French tightrope artist who strung a wire between the Twin Towers in 1974 and spent 45 minutes entertaining New York with his death-defying act. The stunt took months of meticulous planning and preparation. Petite assembled a team of adventurers he needed to help him set up the wire, spend months watching the entrances and exits and taking notes, and then devised a plan to get to the top without being noticed by the police or security until it was too late to stop him. For much of its length, “Man on Wire” plays like a heist film; there are the scale models, the blueprints, the nervousness and bickering on the team about whether or not they’re ready, and then the breathless moments when the unexpected forces them to improvise. For all appearances, they might be planning a bank heist rather than a guerrilla circus act.
Petite narrates much of the story himself, and, as might be expected from a circus performer, is quite a character. Passionate, animated, breathless, he is a master of the lost art of storytelling, When he describes being forced to hide from an unexpected security guard, he leaps under the tablecloth, and continues the interview from there. He would be a great guy to be stuck on an elevator with.
Director James Marsh uses every trick in the book to keep the setup story interesting, and at times “Man on Wire” feels like a Guy Maddin film, but it all works, for the most part. Actors recreate much of the action, and Phillipe had the good (if somewhat theatrical) sense to film most of his preparation, so there’s no shortage of archival footage to pull from. It is fun to watch the footage of these young, handsome, fearless twentysomethings, playing together in a country field, plotting the impossible just because it seems like a fun thing to do. It’s a reminder that the hippie 60’s weren’t all sex, drugs and rock n’ roll; there was an innocence, and an optimism, as well.
In this day and age, when the simple mention of the Twin Towers summons images of destruction and despair, shock, helplessness and anger, director James Marsh’s decision to make a film about another illicit, illegal and dangerous act involving those towers is courageous in itself. Marsh never mentions 9/11 in “Man on Wire,” but the parallels between the two acts are obvious. Especially at the beginning, as we watch the team attempt to get past the tight security at the World Trade Center, they act and feel like terrorists. It is startling – and perhaps even healing – to realize, suddenly, that they are planning a daring act, not of destruction, but of grace, beauty, and whimsy. An act that is both meaningless and purposeless, and yet is somehow filled with hope and optimism at the same time. Phillipe Petit’s act of derringdo reminded me that most of the beauty that humans create is without point, and in the face of resistance. There’s no compelling reason for the Venus de Milo to exist, either, and yet I’m thankful that it does.
- To fans of documentaries like “Spellbound” and “The King of Kong.”
- To appreciators of senseless beauty and daring grace.
- For aging, but not jaded, hippies.
- If circus theatrics just seem shallow and pointless to you.
- If the wounds from 9/11 are still too fresh to touch for you. “Man on Wire” might have a healing effect, but only if you’re ready for healing.
- If you can’t see any beauty in illegal acts.