Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Review: Man on Wire

A Discovery Films release 2008

Directed by James Marsh

A documentary that follows the staging of tightrope walker Philippe Petit's daring, but illegal, high-wire routine performed between New York City's World Trade Center's twin towers in 1974.

I first learned of Philippe Petit when I was a freshman in college. I saw photographs of his daring tightrope walk between the Twin Towers and was instantly amazed by the image. He appeared to be walking on air, floating, literally dancing in the sky. It was unbelievable. Still is.

Man on Wire is a fantastic documentary that follows the events preceding Petit's famous walk, what some consider the "artistic crime of the century". It's not a flashy film, nor does it need to be -- the subject matter and main protagonist are in and of themselves so enigmatic and interesting that the film's composition barely matters. Focusing mainly on the planning and the event itself, the film often compares Philippe's artistic vision to a heist, using the bank robbery metaphor several times. But the profound beauty of Philippe's actions and the dedication of his cohorts make it a noble cause.

Perhaps what I took away most from this film is that this was a once in a lifetime event -- in the wake of terrorism and high security, a stunt like Philipe's is not only impossible physically, but philosophically. Public space isn't equated with public ownership in the same way; performance pieces like Philippe's rarely come without press releases, and tightrope walking is a particularly antiquated (and French) art form. But Man on Wire serves to celebrate and preserve that moment in time, in all its beauty. Easily the best documentary of 2008.

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