Here’s another Hot Docs 2008 Festival selection that has made it to the Academy Awards best documentary category shortlist. I am reviewing all five on this blog before the Oscar envelope is torn open. See my post “The Betrayal” for my first review. Now for “Man on Wire.”
Since I work with documentary professionals, I had heard that “Man on Wire” is both a competent and inspirational doc. No one disliked it, but also, no one had anything particularly passionate to say about it either. Do we just watch too many docs?
My interest in the filmed perked when I found a Tribeca Film Festival interview with filmmaker James Marsh on YouTube. He said something in particular that pulled me into this magical tale about French tightrope walker Philippe Petit who dared to walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre back in 1974.
Imagine a British filmmaker arriving to the fabled land of New York to hear this story from years ago, tweaking his imagination. It had become “part of the mythology” of the city, he said. “It’s become one of those stories we’re all dimly aware of.” Having spent some time in New York, I can only imagine that even the tallest and most spectacular of tales gets lost in the vast archives of fantastic tales that this city has experienced over the centuries. That you recall a single story sets the imagination in flight.
Marsh has been touted for constructing the film as a heist movie, but it is the act itself that was, by its very nature, a caper. Petit also had some sense that the story would lend itself to film – many of the scenes are of him and his team preparing for months in advance and practicing similar walks in Paris and Australia. The clips are lovely windows into artistic collaboration and the power of the conviction of youth.
Equally as interesting is the archival footage of the construction of the twin towers. I watch the construction of the Ritz Carlton from out of my window at the CBC every day and there is no comparison in scale.
I’m glad Marsh became lulled by this legend to the point that he contacted tightrope walker and thief Petit to make the film. Had he not, our collective consciousness of those towers would be marred by the terrible act of violence that would destroy them twenty-seven years later. Instead, we are gifted with a wingless man balancing his fragile life on a wire. It is in watching those steps, so gently placed, that we can imagine the breath-taking closeness of death and then the glorious singing of the opening up of the spirit, that make the film.