Even as the first girders were laid in the mid-1960s, something about the World Trade Center — that twin-pronged erection jutting from the loins of Western commerce — inspired fantasies of lustful conquest. As James Marsh's documentary Man on Wire tells it, a mischievous French teenager was sitting in a dentist's office in 1968 when a magazine image caught his eye. It was a sketch of two gleaming towers, under construction, piercing the clouds above lower Manhattan. But their height was less intriguing than the short distance between them — a mere 140 feet, just a puny gap in the drawing.
Instantly, Philippe Petit found his passion. Across that gap, the Parisian street performer and would-be wire walker inked in the detail that would consume his life for the next six years: a straight line. Part caper movie, part real-life superhero saga, and entirely engrossing, Man on Wire recounts in Rififi-like detail how Petit dodged cops, fought the elements, and defied seemingly impossible logistics to pull off a feat of death-defying frivolity: an illegal, hastily rigged tightrope walk on August 7, 1974, across the 1,350-foot plunge between the towers.
Lithe and trim with a well-muscled delicacy, the middle-aged Petit animates Man on Wire with his impish presence. Almost from the moment he saw the towers, Petit recalls, he began to plot his way to New York: first by practicing endlessly on a home-rigged high wire, then by taking warm-up runs (such as a mid-air stroll between the towers of Notre Dame). He assembled a core group — including his then-girlfriend, Annie Allix, and his boyhood chum, Jean-Louis Blondeau — for moral and physical support, though they privately worried he was courting death.
Many documentaries, whether for reasons of scope or the complexity and nuance of the topic, seem better suited to a book or article than cinema. Although it's taken from Petit's written 2003 account — which he had begun, in a stroke of savage irony, just as the site of his great "coup" was eradicated by cataclysmic assault — the story presented here is natural movie material. (Perhaps too much so: In the knotty early sections, Marsh seems overwhelmed by the many entry points into the tale, and some of his impressionistic black-and-white embellishments are distractingly arty.) There's the classic caper-movie building of Petit's American team: a Donald E. Westlake assortment complete with a stoner musician, an "inside man" with a handlebar mustache, and a skittish accomplice who bails at zero hour. There's the copious period footage, not just of the towers but of Petit himself: wiry, driven, possessed of an eroto-demonic concentration that suggests Marcel Marceau morphed into Malcolm McDowell.
Above all, there's the nature of Petit's feat, to which words can hardly do justice. Forget Spider-Man swinging from a CGI thread; behold will and skill triumphing over wind, physics and staring down the limits of what is humanly possible. A description of the walk, however vivid, pales beside a knee-weakening downward shot of the moment of truth: the instant when Petit had to shift his weight from the foot planted on the building to the one tentatively poised on the cable in mid-air. But it isn't just vertiginous height that the camera captures so ideally: it's the airy surrealism of Petit's skywalking — a defiance of gravity made even more elating by its life-or-death consequences. "What a beautiful death," Petit sighs, "to die in the exercise of your passion."
"He could no longer carry on living without having at least tried to conquer those towers," Annie recalls, "because it felt like those towers belonged to him." The towers proved to be a magnet for more malignant strains of megalomania, and Man on Wire is haunted by the story it doesn't tell. Although the movie relies on present-day interviews with its subjects, the date September 11 is never uttered in the film. Marsh takes us to Ground Zero, but the steel skeleton shown in the 40-year-old construction footage is a prelude, not the aftermath.
The towers' fall would seem a glaring omission. But that void becomes the movie's unspoken point. It turns Marsh's film into a ghostly meditation on the transience of human accomplishment. All monuments, someday, end up tombstones. Where Petit, and the builders of the towers, lifted man to the skies, the terrorists who struck at them sent human beings plunging back to earth. But for the duration of this exhilarating documentary, the towers stand — and so, atop and between them, does Petit's once-in-a-lifetime achievement.
Ultimately, Man on Wire memorializes a New York of almost lackadaisical looseness — a place where security breaches end in magically fanciful outcomes; where even Petit's awestruck arresting officer refers to him as a "tightrope dancer, because you couldn't call him a walker"; where the Port Authority bestows upon this daredevil scofflaw not a ticket to Gitmo, but a lifetime pass to the World Trade Center's observation deck. Marsh shows the pass, and you may feel a catch in your throat when you see the word hand-written in the corner: "permanent."