Wednesday, August 06, 2008

MAN ON WIRE - compelling doc about a brilliant act of public art

James Marsh (THE KING) returns to documentaries with the compelling true life story of Philippe Petit - a cheeky, self-mythologising Frenchman who pulled off the breathtaking coup of walking a tightrope between the Twin Towers. Having previously walked between the towers of the Notre Dame and between the posts of the Sydney Harbour bridge, this ingenious hippie couldn't help but raise his sights to the world's tallest building, which had only just been completed. He went to New York, spied on the building, figured out the practicalities, and practised at his home in France. A motley band of friends and girlfriends helped him figure out how to smuggle in his equipment and connect the wire between the two towers. They shared his excitement at staging a beautiful public performance, but also the knowledge and fear that he could easily slip and fall to his death. Finally they saw Philippe engorged by sudden fame, feted and distant.

The documentary is a collage of interviews with all the key participants, archive photographs and video and elegant re-enactments. Marsh inter-twines the long-run story of planning the coup with the events of the day itself - the tension of smuggling in the equipment and the actual moment of the walk.

Philippe Petit is certainly a charismatic narrator, and one can't help but wonder how much of his story has been refined and re-enacted over the years. Certainly, I felt that the sort of personality that would attempt something as crazy-beautiful as this would necessarily be faily melodramatic and larger-than-life. But for me the most fascinating character was Philippe's best friend, who felt his friend was crazy but knew he was going to attempt the walk, and so tried his best to make sure he did so as safely as possible. There's a moment where he describes looking at Philippe's face as he steps onto the wire: the intense concentration changes into a broad smile. The adrenaline and physical memory take over: the friend knows Philippe will be okay, and even now, over forty years later, he starts to cry. It's a tremendously powerful moment and speaks of the really amazing thing at the centre of the film: true friendship, even if it couldn't ultimately survive the tension of the coup.

MAN ON WIRE played Sundance 2008 where James Marsh won the Audence Award ad the Grand Jury Prize for World Documentary. It is on release in New York and the UK. It opens in the Netherlands in February 2009.

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