Monday, 24 September 2012

Man on Wire

Another film I reviewed for the So You Think You Can Review tournament at the Lamb, this also sees the start of my attempting to review at least one documentary a month for this site. 

I’ve had the debate many times with various people as to whether a documentary can really be considered as a film. This usually happens when I use the phrase “I watched a great film last night; it was a documentary about...” The conversation’s other participant invariably glazes over at the ‘D’ word, as how could anything compiled entirely from archive footage and talking-head interviews be seen as entertaining? After all, there’s the danger they might actually learn something. I feel that if there was ever going to be a documentary that could sway the naysayers, then that film is Man on Wire. Even though it is very much a true story, told by those involved with the aid of photographs, footage and re-enactments, this tale of a man attempting to infiltrate the World Trade Centre and walk a tightrope between the towers is compelling, nail-biting stuff, and for the most part feels like a work of fiction.

The main reason for this is at its roots the story is that from a heist movie. Many of that genres requirements are ticked off – the hero out for one last job he’s dreamed about all his life, the girl on the sidelines who’s concerned for the wellbeing of her boyfriend, the rag-tag team recruited to help with the meticulously planned job, within which there are arguments and animosity. Hell, there’s even a guy who splits at the onset of the heist, reminiscent of Heat and Dog Day Afternoon, and a scene where our heroes are inches away from being spotted by security guards doing the rounds, as seen in every heist film ever made. This could quite easily have been entirely dramatised, and few would bat an eye at the idea of it being completely scripted. If anything, given the premise of the film, I’d find it easier to believe as a work of fiction rather than fact.

You’d be forgiven for expecting that a documentary in which the focus is an act occurring around the World Trade Center to at least mention in passing the tragedy that took place there in 2001, as indeed was I, possibly in an epilogue or a dedication. However this would have been inappropriate, as the location of the event is of no consequence to this film, the subject, as in the title, is of the man who chose to dedicate his existence to, as he himself puts it, “living on the edge of life,” and for him that edge just happened to be 7/8” thick, 140ft long and suspended a quarter of a mile up in the air in the middle of New York.

The eponymous wirewalker is Philippe Petit, a Frenchman whose surname is entirely appropriate when describing his diminutive frame, but in no way can be used when referring to his ambitions. In every sense of the word this man is a performer, and he lights up the screen whenever he’s nearby. At the age of seventeen, in a dentist’s waiting room, he caught sight of an artist’s impression of the as yet unfinished World Trade Centre in a magazine. Instinctively, he grabbed a pen and drew a line between the two, tore the page from the magazine and unicycled home, with a dream clutched firmly in his hand and cemented permanently in his head, one that he wouldn’t get to realise for another 8 years. Petit struck me as the kind of person who you initially think would be a great guy to hang out with – he’s outgoing, adventurous and has boundless amounts of energy and passion, but after a while he would become incredibly grating if you didn’t follow the same dream as him. Think Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky, Ed Wood or even Ferris Bueller. He seems able to convince anyone to follow him, and Annie, his then girlfriend, freely admits that when they were together there was no consideration for her aspirations, only those of Philippe, yet she doesn’t seem to mind as his ride seemed to be a fairly thrilling one.

The film consists of a non-linear narrative, beginning with the late-night preparations of Petit and his team heading to the World Trade Centre. From there, it flits back to Petit’s childhood and the realisation of his dream, various interviews with the members of his team and recreations of the scenarios that led to his tightrope attempt. There’s also footage of his previous tightrope excursions, between the steeples of Notre Dame Cathedral in his home city of Paris, during a large ceremony inside, and across two of the towers of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in the middle of the day with traffic speeding past. When the topic of Philippe falling is brought up there are no signs of fear or trepidation, merely the acknowledgement that the man would most likely die, but it would be “a beautiful death; to die in the exercise of your passion.”

I’ve always had a soft spot for a good (though sometimes not that good) heist film, so for me the most enthralling parts of the film were in the recreation of the reconnaissance and infiltration aspects of the story. As expected, not everything runs necessarily smoothly for Petit, but there is always a way around any setback encountered, and on a couple of occasions the problems – Petit standing on a nail, for example – often turned themselves into solutions that improved upon the original plan in ways they hadn’t as yet considered.

As documentaries go, I can’t fault the production or delivery here, other than a couple of points I was interested in seemed to be glossed over, like for example what happened when Philippe was arrested in Sydney, and why did he learn to tightrope walk in the first place? Most of my other queries were answered throughout the film, so these are only minor matters really. The best kind of documentary should leave you interested to find out more about the subject matter anyway, which means there will always be a few unanswered questions.

The next time I have an argument with someone about whether a documentary can ever be considered as a film, I’ll just hand them this movie and consider the case closed.

Choose film, 8/10


  1. I like your review and liked your comparisons to a heist movie. I've also experienced eyes glossing over at mention of the D word but I liked this one so much that I bought the blu ray soon after seeing it, partpython to push it onto others. It's been one of my favourite docs of recent years abduction I don't think my heart has ever beat so fast during a documentary.

    Ad for Phillipe being annoying, you should see his Oscar speech! I nearly didn't watch the film after seeing him mess around on stage.

  2. *Heads to Youtube for Oscar speech* Yep, he's a dick. You can clealy see him putting the coin back into his pocket after the 'trick', and I kind of wanted the Oscar to fall off his chin when he tried to balance it, even though it wasn't his.

    I bought the DVD blind, based on a few reviews and a cheap price, but haven't found anyone willing to actually borrow it yet!

  3. I liked this film. Even though he was obviously okay, I was cringing when he was out on the wire, not just walking back and forth, but laying down and doing tricks on it.

    If you want a great documentary, check out Hoop Dreams. It's on the 1001 Movies list. So is The Thin Blue Line, if you haven't seen it.

    1. I saw Hoop Dreams recently, it'll probably be next month's documentary, and yes it was great, even though I'm not a massive basketball/sports fan.