Man on Wire

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

If I had to come up with an ultimate nightmare, it would sound something like this: my fiancé and my family are on the top of a very large tower – probably a couple of thousand feet from the ground. They’re being held there for reasons I can’t comprehend. All I can see is that they’re stuck there and I must get to them. However, there’s only one way to mount a rescue. I must journey from an equally high tower and walk across a long tightrope. Only by this method will they be released.

If by some quirk of fate this happened – if some Saw-like master villain contrived it or if some sadistic Japanese game show rigged it up – I’d step on the rope and immediately fall to my death. Therefore it’s amazing to me that Philippe Petit would tightrope walk between the Twin Towers for fun; that he would dream about it.

The dream starts when Petit spots a news story in a dentist’s waiting room. He sees that they’re building two large towers in New York. Like a moth to a flame, he’s drawn to it. He wants to walk between the two buildings.

One of the questions the film asks is why Petit would want to do this. Surely he must be nuts. But Petit, quite rightly, mocks the idea that the question can be answered. Why do we dream the things we dream? I’m not sure any of us could provide a coherent explanation. We just want what we want. And what Petit wants is to walk between those two buildings. He wants to stand on top of the world. He wants to push his body and his mind as far as they will go. He wants an adventure. He wants to have fun. And this is fun for him. Sure it may seem like a strange idea of fun, but Petit’s marbles are most certainly all there.

It’s something of a disappointment that there isn’t any actual footage of the walk itself. All we have are still pictures. But the pictures and the commentary are more than enough. From street level it looks like Petit is walking on air – that he’s dancing through the clouds. And then from the Tower itself, and the close-ups that are taken, you can see the complete joy on the man’s face. It’s the look of a man fulfilling his dream.

But even though the act, like every act of self-expression, is self-absorbed, it’s also inspirational. Here’s something you’d thought you’d never see – a man walking on clouds. So if someone can do that, then who knows what we’re capable of.

Of course, what happened on September 11th showed that the towers were a magnet for other kinds of maniacs. But the film isn’t concerned with that, even though the shadow of 9/11 is in every frame. No, this film is a love story to the Twin Towers. We see them being constructed and we see the effect that they have on Petit. They inspire him to make this walk and in turn he gives this gift to the city. The gift is amorphous, but any time you make a city full of cynical, battle-hardened individuals gaze into the sky in joy and wonder, you’ve done something marvellous. And even though as I said earlier, the act is self-absorbed – it’s as much about ego as anything – it’s also inclusive. Petit isn’t doing this for money; he’s not trying to hawk some crappy TV programme or create some media image. He’s just trying to have fun. And that fun filters down to street level, where people marvel at the tricks he performs – he kneels on the rope, he lies on his back and he taunts the police; he makes everyone part of his routine.

However, the photos we see of people at street level are bittersweet. Looking up in the sky with wide eyes, they’re eerily similar to the looks we saw during 9/11. Almost every moment has the reflection of September 11th in it.

Another way that Petit’s stunt reflects 9/11 is the meticulous planning. In 2001 the plan had a hideous aim, but here the planning is like a bunch of schoolboys preparing a good-natured lark.

One of the funniest moments in the film is when Petit is trying to outfox a security guard in one of the towers. The guard suspects that someone is there, but Petit hides behind a pillar. Then when the guard moves around the pillar, Petit, like in a cartoon, moves with him so that he doesn’t give himself away. And then in another incident, Petit and a friend have to hide under a tarp for a long period of time. Okay, that sounds bad enough. You know, not having to move or make a sound. But to make it much, much worse, the two men actually have to sit on a beam that rests above an unfinished floor. You’re constantly amazed at the fact that these guys got away with this.

And the whole thing is most certainly a team effort. Surrounded by a group of crazy friends, they set about making Petit’s dream a reality. And it’s quite touching the lengths they go to for him. On the day of ‘Le Coup’, the plan is to fire the wire from one tower to the other with a bow and arrow (the firing is beautifully filmed – a strobe of light illuminates a couple of silhouettes and the stars dance in the sky; the effect is quite dizzying). The only problem is that before the line can be anchored, they drop quite a bit of it. So all through the night they have to pull it up, hoping that after all their hard work this one mistake hasn’t cost them.

Then there’s the fact that they devote all this time to Petit. They plan the walk, they make fake IDs, fake invoices, and they even pose as journalists. As many people have rightly pointed out, the endeavour is like a bank robbery. The attention to detail is impressive.

But the one disappointing thing is what happened after the walk. Drunk with success, Petit is seduced by fame and cheats on his girlfriend and severs ties with his friends. Suddenly you realise this man is human.

But if anything that makes the story more impressive. Yes Petit isn’t perfect, but he did create a moment of perfection. Just like in the film, when Petit stands on the wire, everything else fades into the background. He may have let things go to his head but he still gave the world a fabulous gift – he showed that when we put our minds to it, we still have the ability to inspire and astound.

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