Man on Wire
On August 7, 1974, an obscure French tightrope walker by the name of Philippe Petit did the unthinkable. After his small team surreptitiously carted up over one ton of supporting materials, he spent 45 minutes walking between the two World Trade Center Towers on a tightrope.
Man on Wire is an engrossing documentary that tells Mr. Petit’s astounding story that resulted in this enormous accomplishment. Told through present day interviews of the participants and actual live footage at the time, this provocative documentary, much like Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005), will stay with you for a long time.
Petit was raised in a stern home, and as a result grew up to be a rebellious lad who liked to live on the uncomfortable edge of what society found acceptable. As one friend described, “To violate the law, as long as it was not wicked or mean, was wonderful!”
Finding his true love as a wirewalker, Philippe proceeded to travel the world performing stunts that inevitably resulted in his arrest. But illegal or not, the footage of him walking between the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and a bridge tower in Sydney, Australia, are completely mesmerizing.
One of the people interviewed in this poignant documentary is his former lover, Ann. Though their relationship ended shortly after his Twin Towers feat, she speaks of Petit in terms that still reflect love and admiration. She talks in moving terms of a time when not only did everything seem possible, but indeed everything was.
This story of Petit’s incredible high-wire act takes on added significance given the fact of 9/11. Petit’s camera at the time shows numerous views from the top of the towers, and it recalls a world that no longer exists. We were all so much younger then, and it is sad beyond words to see how our country has aged in such a short period of time.
The footage of Petit actually walking on the wire between the Twin Towers is enough to make anyone’s hands clammy. He is shown smiling at police officers who are waiting to arrest him when he reaches the edge of the building, only to turn around and walk in the opposite direction. He actually laid prone on the wire as thousands of people stared in awe from the ground!
In reflecting on his thoughts before actually stepping out on the wire, 1,368 feet in the air, Petit acknowledged the distinct possibility that he could fall to his death. Then he turned to the camera and said, “But what a wonderful death it would be, doing something for which you are passionate about.” Not a bad motto to live by, don’t you think?
When he finally left the wire for solid land and was arrested, he was astounded that most reporters asked the same question, namely “Why did you do it?” He looked at them dumbfounded and repeatedly said, “I don’t know why.”
As a modest student of history, I think I know why. It was the same reason that Marco Polo found China; or that Columbus sailed west into the unknown sea; or Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the globe; or that Captain Cook repeatedly sailed into the unknown South Seas; that Lewis & Clark took off for the Pacific through uncharted territory; or that the Gemini Astronauts blasted off into space. They all did it because it was there, nothing more and nothing less.
They all, at the risk of death, journeyed into the unknown. They all challenged nature. That was reason enough.