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Man on Wire

Twin Towers adventure

Sep. 9, 2008
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  The mastermind and his confederates cased the World Trade Center for entrances and exits and the coming and going of guards, mapping every step of their coup with the meticulousness of professional criminals going for the vault in a heavily secured bank. But although their scheme was against the law, it was more misdemeanor than felony and would have no victims unless a tragic accident disrupted their careful plan. In those years the idea of terrorists crashing jetliners into the skyscrapers would have been pulp fiction.

  The mastermind, an elfin young Frenchman called Philippe Petit, loved the Twin Towers and dreamed of crossing between them in midair. He was a tightrope walker, or funambule, to use the French word, and wanted nothing less than to step between the Earth's tallest man-made pinnacles on a taut cable strung between the two buildings. He accomplished his remarkable feat on Aug. 7, 1974.

  The British production Man on Wire documents and recreates Petit's coup. It's a wonderfully made film interweaving historical recreations and interviews with Petit and his companions along with a handful of still photographs and TV news reports from that long-ago time before cell phone cameras and YouTube. Director James Marsh occasionally employs visuals influenced by 1920s silent cinema, complete with expanding irises and impressionistic shadow plays. Man on Wire illustrates the difference between an artful documentary filmmaker and the sort of deadbeats who point their digicam at an interesting topic and hope for the best.

  In keeping with his country's traditions, Petit took a philosophical view of his exploit and was amused by the reaction of the prosaic American policemen and reporters who repeatedly asked why he walked between the world's tallest buildings on a tightrope, no safety net in sight. For Petit, his exploit was aerial ballet, poetry in motion. One of the bemused Port Authority cops who arrested Petit glimpsed his intent by describing the Frenchman to the press as a "tightrope dancer, because you couldn't call him a walker."

  Before the World Trade Center, Petit had performed similar high-wire feats at Notre Dame in Paris and the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia, and had earned a few extra francs as a street-corner acrobat. He loved movies about elaborately plotted bank robberies and, along with his girlfriend and a small band of companions, devised his Manhattan skywalk with the synchronized precision of the heists depicted in Rififi or The AsphaltJungle. Even in 1974, the Twin Towers was considered a secure facility, with Port Authority guards checking identity passes. Petit couldn't simply ride the elevator to the top floor and string a cable between the towers in broad daylight.

  Although Man on Wire doesn't make much of the era in which Petit executed his adventure, his aerial act comes out of the bright side of the prankish, anarchic spirit of the 1960s in a genial effort at cutting through society's rules and arousing the imagination with the potential to conquer new worlds. Petit understands his skywalk as a metaphor of our existence: Life is lived on a tightrope suspended over the abyss, regardless of the blinders we place on our perception.


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