The International Writers Magazine: Documentary
Man On Wire (2008)
Creators - James Marsh, Phillippe Petit
• Discovery Films - BBC Storyville - UK Film Council • Wall to Wall
• Red Box Films
Reviewed by Dan Bond
In the days of mainstream extreme sports, parkour and Dirty Sanchez, it is easy to forget that there were mindless stunts and daredevil acts being performed long before, most prominently secluded to within the tented ceilings of the Circus. It is within the Circus environment that French high-wire artiste Phillippe Petit learnt and perfected his trade. James Marsh's Man On Wire follows Petit's story, from his humble beginnings to the realisation of his dream, to walk on a tightrope precariously positioned between the tops of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
Through interviews with Petit and his assembled associates, photographs and detailed, dramatised reconstructions, it is so easy to naively succumb to and later share the passion Petit so willingly displays. His charm, charisma and self-belief are something of an education to any audience, yet Marsh is quick to outline the potential flaws of his character. By presenting Petit as so single-minded and almost childish in his excitement, there is an element of selfishness that often left me questioning how realistic this portrayal of Petit was.
However, through the collaboration of detailing both Petit as a person and his passion for this one event, the eventual act has an almost cinematic quality to it, reinforcing the 'dream' aspect of the whole plot. And there are certain elements of other characters and subtleties in detail that wouldn't appear alien within the plot of a filmic bank job or daring heist. Yet the genius of Marsh here is that he never tries to show Petit as a criminal, merely an impish entertainer who dedicated his life to showing the world 'something beautiful', as Petit aptly described the act in it's aftermath.
Marsh's work also has more resonance due to it's unavoidable comparisons between Petit's stunt and the events of September 11th, 2001. Yet Marsh, by acknowledging the Twin Towers as merely an element of Petit's dream, tactfully manages to only ever suggest the parallels between the two events and never directly address them and, in doing so, manages to maintain full focus on the beauty of Petit's stunt, creating an air of naivety and childishness that preserves the memory of the Twin Towers with a delicate sensitivity.
Even post 9/11, this beauty is timeless and refreshing. Petit's belief is as infectious as it is inspirational, to the point where I never found myself questioning the idea, or daring to think he may fall. Man On Wire is ultimately a poignant and timely reminder that determination and ambition to realise a dream can lead to as much satisfaction as any amount of money or fame may offer.
© Dan Bond December 2009
Reviewed by Dan Bond
one of only a handful of people to escape the endless screenings
of Lost in recent years, I feel I may have conveniently positioned
myself with a slight advantage when it comes to Flash Forward