Man on Wire marks the first time in years that a movie has made me feel physically ill. It’s not violent, and it’s not filmed with herky-jerky camerawork. It simply documents the true story of a guerilla wirewalker who managed to pull off an astonishing performance in the mid-1970s on a wire between the Twin Towers. There is no real footage of that feat, just a few distant shots and some striking still photographs, so most of the film consists of wirewalker Philippe Petit and his friends and co-conspirators describing the preparations for the event. And that gives viewers more than enough time to contemplate just how appallingly risky this whole venture was, giving me a bad case of vicarious vertigo.
I hadn’t realized (though I should have) how much planning had to go into Petit’s stunt. He and his friends spent months designing the rig for the wire. They recruited an “inside man” who worked in one of the buildings. They impersonated reporters and work crews to inspect the rooftops ahead of time. And finally they created false IDs, smuggled their materials into both buildings, and then painstakingly set everything up in the middle of the night so that Petit could walk the wire in daylight before the guards arrived to haul everyone away.
To dramatize all this, director James Marsh makes some use of reenactment, showing us young actors romping around a backyard practice wire and a soundstage rooftop while the real people, most now in their sixties, describe their preparations in voiceover. We hear from a variety of collaborators but no one is as charismatic as the real Petit, still a showman, animated and enthusiastic and thrilled for the chance to recall again his celebrated exploits. He’s so compelling a presence that I couldn’t help but wonder whether the acted sequences—odd in a documentary—were really necessary, especially when the central event, the Twin Towers walk, could not be reenacted at all.
The young actors were a distraction but hardly the most disconcerting thing about Man on Wire. About a third of the way through the film, I realized that I don’t like Petit. At all. As charming and vivacious and oh-so-French as he can be, his selfishness quickly becomes appalling. He merrily claims that to die falling from his wire would have been “a beautiful death”—to die in the service of Art! how grand!—but his friends seem almost traumatized by the event. Decades later, they tear up recalling their fears. They cringe as they ponder the legal ramifications (could they have been charged with manslaughter? assisted suicide?) but even more troubling to them are the emotional implications. What would it have done to them to watch him fall? How could they have coped with helping their friend kill himself as part of a mad lark? Petit wouldn’t have been around to enjoy his “beautiful death,” but they would have had to live with the knowledge that there was nothing beautiful about his shattered body on the pavement.
As stunning as I find those shots of Petit suspended midair between the Towers—and they are lovely, even magical—what I recall most about Man on Wire are the moments in which his friends break down, overwhelmed by the memory of what happened and what could have happened. We know from the outset, of course, that Petit survives, that his wirewalk will be celebrated the world over. But the nightmarish risk of the stunt—and the enormity of what he blithely asks of his friends—still lingers like a toxic fog.
We all measure risk differently, of course—and perhaps I err on the side of caution—but to me, Man on Wire is, more than anything, a portrait of the artist as a monstrously selfish young man. Is he gifted? Yes. Brave? Undoubtedly. But I wasn’t surprised to learn that at least two of Petit’s closest friendships crumbled soon after his triumph at the Towers. The world might be a more beautiful place because of Petit’s daring, but like many an artist before him, he must be a terribly difficult person to love.