Review of "Man on a Wire"





An illegal conspiracy is hatched. A training camp in a foreign land provided the springboard. Co-conspirators frequented transatlantic flights. Reconnaissance missions proved strategically fundamental. A covert operation is carried out. Dreams of conquering the World Trade Center (WTC) are realized. It is the crime of the century.

You would be forgiven for believing the year to be 2001 (or even 1993). Yet the year is actually 1974.

The difference being that Mohamed Atta was a man of wickedness in 2001 (succeeding where his predecessor, Ramzi Yousef, failed eight years earlier) whereas Phillippe Petit was a man on wire in 1974. Jean François Heckel says so. Commenting upon the tightrope artist’s clandestine walk between the Twin Towers in Man on Wire, Petit’s compatriot believes that the Frenchman’s stunt was “illegal, but not wicked”. In other words, the man on wire acted under the wire. Petit’s “coup” was the “artistic crime of the century”.

Petit, a self-described poet who writes in the sky, is an actor on a very thin stage — part of a theatrical production in the heavens, if you like — performing to a global audience. Petit does not do small. Everything about him is grand: from wirewalks at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris (1971) and the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia (1973) to the Twin Towers in New York City (1974). Indeed there could not be a less befitting surname than Phillippe’s. (Try Phillippe Grand on for size!)

Why the reference to September 11 at the outset, you might ask, when Man on Wire provides some psychological relief in recalling a past for the WTC — a WTC free from all apocalyptic connotations? Well, such a film would be welcomed. But Man on Wire is not that film.

Man on Wire is not about September 11 and yet very deliberately is. No film about the WTC can play innocent and pretend 9/11 never happened. Yet, superficially, this is what Man on Wire does. “Why burden this beautiful story with the ugliness of that?” James Marsh, the director, has gone on record as saying. Marsh is disingenuous, to say the very least. Whilst there are no overt references to the destruction of the towers, a mood of anticipatory sadness and longing for a pre-9/11 world pervades the film. This is not helped when a construction worker promises the camera that the tallest buildings in the world are “not going to come tumbling down” or when the narrator states this was a feat that “would never be repeated again.”

The construction site which foreshadows Ground Zero is heart-rending. Archival material of the WTC being assembled has an eerie resonance, particularly the (not so) seemingly innocuous shots of the growing skeletal structure, and the very girders that become so symbolic in the aftermath of the atrocities.

Three further stills are noteworthy:

i) A “World Trade Center Association” signpost — not unlike the signpost featured in the Taliban-stronghold of Kandahar at the turn of century — located on the outskirts of the training camp.

ii) A jet caught passing overhead with its nose appearing to fly into one of the towers.

iii) With the wire barely visible from street level, Petit takes on an uncanny identicalness to the now famous “falling man”.

Man on Wire is anything but a riposte to 9/11. Marsh’s 9/11 tinted spectacles have gotten the better of him. This is a tragedy in itself, especially when considering Petit’s 45-minute, 1,350 feet, heart-stopping high-wire act — not to mention his intoxicating personality, Marsh’s brilliant black and white redramatizations — seamlessly united with tear-jerking interviews, topped off with Michael Nyman compositions.

An illegal conspiracy is hatched. A training camp in a foreign land provided the springboard. Co-conspirators frequented transatlantic flights. Reconnaissance missions proved strategically fundamental. A covert operation is carried out. Dreams of conquering the WTC are realized. It is the crime of the century.

You would be forgiven for believing the year to be 1974. Yet the year is actually 2001 (not 1993).

The Twin Towers are no more.

Paradoxically, the story of a man on wire from 1974 would never have been told had it not been for a man of wickedness in 2001. Marsh knows this fact. It is clear for all to see.

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