Man On Wire is the choice of many for the greatest documentary film ever made, perversely since you know from the start the final outcome when Philippe Petit, the tightrope artist who dared to walk between the twin towers one 7 August, 1974, tells his story.
On the other hand, what you get is dynamite: a thriller in how the heist was set up and pulled off against all odds; the engaging and zanily animated M Petit, his then girlfriend and the associates who helped him pull off this incredible coup, characters one and all; you have the astonishing grace and beauty of the man cheating death by walking on the highest of high wires; and you get the unspoken pathos of what we all know happened to the World Trade Centre on 9 September, 2001.
There is a dramatised version of this story, ironically American rather than French, called The Walk. Granted that actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt was personally trained by Petit, but the artifice is that the actor will never do anything unsafe – CGI makes up for the shortfall, though from what I’ve heard it can’t save the worst French accent in Hollywood history.
Fact is that there is an immediacy, tension and authenticity to the documentary that no movie could ever recreate, for which huge credit is due to director James Marsh. With a combination of interviews, original footage and stills, and recreations of the events described, Marsh uses fast cutting and flashbacks to build tension more than you would ever think possible. Indeed, he also brings out the inner tensions within the team, every strand of fear and worry and the full spectrum of emotions behind the bid to bring off the greatest high wire stunt in history.
Skilfully, Marsh has mixed in tasters of the setup as Petit and friends attempted to set up the feat with a back story that delves to some degree into what motivates the man to want to attempt ever more dangerous and death-defying stunts in the full knowledge that any moment could be his last, and that even if he makes it back to ground level, arrest would surely follow.
The answer comes right at the end of this feature as Petit is quoted as follows:
“To me it’s really, really simple. Life should be lived on the edge… You have to exercise rebellion: to refuse to taper yourself to rules; to refuse your own success; to refuse to repeat yourself; to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge…and then you are going to live your life on the tightrope.”
Even the soundtrack is chosen with great distinction: as Petit’s voice utters these words while he is pictured at the time the film was made walking a training line, with the tranquil sound of Satie’s Gymnopedie No 1 plays in the background. No other piece of music defines so elegantly the beauty of a man on a wire.
For all that, there is an energising quality to the film that warrants further viewings, not something you can typically say about many documentaries. This one is a delight from start to finish, a vignette of the greatest moment in the extraordinary life of one man.