Sunday, August 24, 2008

James Marsh's MAN ON WIRE

First things first: Man on Wire is one of the best films of the year. This humble documentary about Philippe Petit's unbelievable high-wire feat between the Twin Towers gives us a glimpse at just how big and magical life can be. The gift that is given to those who live their lives to the fullest and who dare to dream is written all over the face of not only Petit, but also everyone involved in the project. Inspiring and moving, Man on Wire goes so far to expand the definition of beauty.

Philippe Petit's amazing story starts in 1968 when he first sees an article about the two towers of the World Trade Center being built in New York City. Already an accomplished high-wire walker, Petit recounts how he simply draw a line between an artists drawing of the Twin Towers. Perhaps vacillating on the notion of a grand feat, the film chronicles his momentum as he first walks between the two spires of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 1971 and then between the Northern pylons of the Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia in 1973. Petit's preparations for stringing a wire between the two towers was nothing if not fastidious, taking into account every aspect of the project. Being able to get into the WTC with the equipment needed to string a wire was no easy job even in 1974. Watching the preparation through interviews, archive footage and re-enactments is riveting. Four people, two on one tower and two on the other, defied all the odds of getting caught and rigging the wire. Despite the detail, nothing prepares you for the actuality and seeming impossibility of the event.

I'm probably a couple years shy of being able to remember this event, as friends just a few years older than me can recall hearing what seemed like a fairytale story of a man walking in between two buildings 1300 feet in the air. And for people who saw the event, it is evident that Philippe Petit's realization of his dream was a gift. The emotive experience is alive in the people interviewed in the film, and especially within Petit, as he talks about his walk as if it was yesterday. There is one photo of Petit walking the wire between the Towers with a grin on his face (or is he laughing) that totally embodies the joy he describes thirty-four years later. While the event was joyful for Petit, it was, and is, overwhelming for his good friend Jean-Louise who loses composure recollecting the moment. Stock news footage shows a policemen stating, "I personally figured I was watching something somebody else would never see again in the world."

Who knew that the greatest homage to to those towers would come 27 years before their collapse. I'm thankful that Marsh made a conscious decision to omit any literal reference of September 11th, leaving the tragedy for a place where it is better suited. The Towers nonetheless lurk like ghosts hovering just at the edge of the film. Seeing photos of the construction and the top of the Towers prior to any observation decks is thrilling as an archive of the structure.

"Man on wire" is the simplistic but poetic description scribed on his police report. But how else do you describe it? Words fail, but James Marsh's documentary does the man and the achievement great justice.


Daniel G. said...

Great review, Kathie. I've yet to read anyone who has anything less to say about it than you. Sounds like the Oscar front-runner for Best Doc Feature at this point.

Kathie Smith said...

Thanks Daniel. I was genuinely moved by the subtle power of this doc. I would be surprised if there is a better documentary this year.

Daniel G. said...

Well there certainly hasn't been a more popular one, but I'm still having a hard time putting this too far ahead of a few others, like Surfwise, Young @ Heart, and Up the Yangtze.

Kathie Smith said...

Well, now I've had to go back and look at the docs I've seen this year and here is the cream of the my viewing crop so far this year:

Poisoned by Polonium
My mind was boggled by the multiple layers of political intrigue involved in Litvinenko's poisoning, although this doc is more story and less art.

Taxi to the Dark Side
This was, of course, from last year, but I can guarantee it wouldn't have gotten the (limited) release that it did without the Oscar.

Standard Operating Procedure
Although the post-screening discussion at the Walker dampened by enthusiasm for the film (but bolstered by opinion of Errol Morris), this is nonetheless a very provocative and interesting document abut the event at Abu Ghraib.

Ditto on Up the Yangtze

Chris and Don: A Love Story
Two artists with extraordinary lives together.

Sadly I have not seen Surfwise and Young @ Heart.

Daniel G. said...

I didn't see Poisoned or Chris and Don, and I included Taxi in last year's picks.

Aside from the ones I already mentioned, I would add Bigger Stronger Faster, Blindsight, The Betrayal, American Teen, and Encounters at the End of the World.

Still looking forward to Trouble the Water and Stranded, too!