Man On Wire: When Dreams Come True 104 Stories Up
Many of my favorite documentaries are about dreamers, but I’ve never seen a dreamer like Philippe Petit. When he was a young man, he saw an announcement that the Twin Towers were being built in New York City, and immediately realized he wanted to walk on a high wire between the two buildings. He trained and planned insanely meticulously, and the tale of his several-year-long journey to achieve this goal is one of the most thrilling and brilliantly told stories of the year. If you don’t normally care for documentaries, see this one—it’s more suspenseful than the majority of summer action extravaganzas you saw this year, and it captures your wonder without a single CGI enhancement.
If it wasn’t a documentary, you’d have trouble believing all of the obstacles Petit and his team overcame to even get to the roofs of the buildings, let alone to set it up and walk across it. There are security checks that must be passed, ID cards that need presenting, night watchmen that must be avoided. Director James Marsh plays up the fact that what Petit is doing is, in fact, a crime—Petit seems to idolize the gangsters, bank robbers, and con men from old Hollywood movies. Indeed, the set-up, execution, and improvisation by multiple characters in this act are not dissimilar to Ocean’s 11. You’ve even got the set of characters, all of who wonder if the others are capable of pulling off this crime of creativity. The loyal best friend grounded in reality, the concerned girlfriend, the adventure-seeking Americans, the mustachioed inside man, the man who gets cold feet while on the job—these characters are so familiar to us, it’s stunning to think this story is real.
Marsh uses a combination of interviews, re-enactments, and actual photographs and video footage of young Petit, and weaves together Petit’s journey to the Twin Towers with the actual execution of the attempt to make it happen—“le coup,” Petit calls it. The music, much of which is borrowed from Michael Nyman’s scores from Peter Greenaway’s films, help accentuate the dream-like state of the film. One of the most touching elements of the film is the way in which it commemorates the Twin Towers—it doesn’t reference 9/11 at all. We see Ground Zero at the beginning and think, “Oh no, here comes the 9/11 bit…” but it turns out to be Ground Zero before the WTC was even built. By not mentioning the tragedy, Marsh is encouraging us to remember the beauty, the majesty, and the magic of the Towers—any current reference to the World Trade Center at the movies immediately has a shadow cast over it, but not this film. It is a celebration of the Towers as an American symbol— when Petit sees it, he is enraptured, and it inspires dreams.
Finally, the film is told mostly through the mouth of Petit, a natural storyteller. He knows exactly how to turn a phrase in order to keep us on the edge of our seats. Marsh doesn’t sentimentalize his subject… he shows us the cockiness, the “bad boy” image Petit embraced, and the occasional brutal honesty. When asked why he did it, Petit said, “When I see three oranges, I juggle. When I see two towers, I walk.” Nothing more. No reason why high wire walking thrills him, no reason why it appealed to him in the first place—it just is. I think that’s the beauty of dreams. We don’t know why they stick with us, but they do. When I first saw a game of basketball as a child, all I wanted to do was play basketball for the rest of my life. I spent hours shooting the ball in my backyard, and wouldn’t come in until I’d made ten shots in a row. I was never more athletic than my opponents, but I was determined to work harder and hustle more. Finally, in high school, I saw other kids at the tryouts slam dunking the ball, doing unbelievable acrobatic tricks with the ball—and our school was routinely last place in the county. I gave up on my dream there, because I thought it was impossible, and pursued new dreams. Philippe Petit is an inspiration to anyone who thinks their dream is unattainable—he was told it was impossible, he told himself that it was impossible, but he worked towards it anyway. He researched every day for months, he practiced incessantly, and he ignored every naysayer, including his own nagging doubts. The perseverance of the human spirit—that’s the central subject of Man On Wire, a funny, emotional nail-biter of a film.