The introductory scenes of ‘Man on Wire’ felt as tense as any spy movie; the preparations being carried out filmed with an atmosphere as edgy as any gangster yarn. But this was real. By the time it reached the main titles and the building site that was to become the twin towers, we had no doubts about the film’s reality.
Intercut with shots of the towers being slowly assembled are scenes of Philippe Petit’s childhood, and how he first discovered his dream of the twin towers by seeing a photo of the proposed structures in a dentist’s waiting room. From then on he forgot his toothache and devoted himself to the achievement of his ambition: tight-rope walking across between the tops of the south and north towers. It’s easy to see why he has been labelled by some as mad or an egomaniac, but Philippe is a passionate Frenchman, and whereas this phrase normally brings to mind an ardent lover, in this case his passion has been concentrated on achieving more and more daring feats of tight-rope walking - with the ultimate goal in mind of conquering the highest buildings in New York. Mad he is not, but he is clearly eccentric, for who else (even a Frenchman) would go around routinely riding a unicycle?
At the age of 20 he also became obsessed with Annie, who soon fell for him and was drawn into his dream. Together they worked on the dream - she initially following him on the wire (now that’s what I call true love!). This back story, interwoven with shots of the growing towers, took on a surreal quality, no doubt helped by the sensitive background score by Michael Nyman.
Annie recalls with a quieter passion Philippe’s first daring stunt of walking across the highest points of Notre Dame de Paris. Whilst he was calmly stepping along his wire she went onto the interior where there was a gathering of distinguished clergy, and announced what was happening above them. Jean-Francois, an accomplice, had said that the walk was ‘against the law but not wicked or mean’ - and sure enough the police and people in the street below gazed at Philippe in wonder, not disapprobation.
The Sydney Harbour Bridge was a tougher challenge, but by this time his confidence made it seem entirely natural and earned him the same reaction of amazed wonder from the crowd - and the police. The quality of the photography in these scenes, as in the whole film, emphasises the beauty of what was happening. It seemed to me quite amazing that in a documentary shot over a period of more than thirty years, each part of the story melds seamlessly with the next, holding the tension, and the attention, perfectly together.
In 1974, Philippe went to see the twin towers in New York. When Annie saw the pictures she was fearful, but Philippe could see workmen still there, finishing off, so now was the time to do it. He had to get tons of equipment into the south tower, and found an insider, Barry, an Englishman, to help. They made ‘official’ passes with which to gain access to the lifts, and gradually managed to get everything up to the required positions.
The final, climactic part of this true story is filled with the same tension of the first part, but with added excitement as Philippe draws closer to his dream. To see him holding his 26ft pole, balancing on a ¾ inch wire against a clear blue sky, was a truly beautiful sight. And to share in the relief and triumph felt by him, Annie and all his followers at the end was an emotional moment. This film will surely help to counteract other less happy thoughts associated with the twin towers.
by Viv Apple