After a brief detour into fiction film with the little-seen (and rather underappreciated) “The King” (2006), James Marsh returns to the documentary with this fascinating, exquisitely-made piece about Philippe Petit, tightrope-walker extraordinaire, who—with a little help from a small body of friends—succeeded in staging an illegal stroll between the tops of the twin towers of the still-in-process World Trade Center in 1974. Despite the fact that the outcome is part of the historical record, “Man on Wire” builds a remarkable degree of suspense in reconstructing how the trek more than 1300 feet above ground level was accomplished, and along the way it manages a good deal of humor and charm as well.
Marsh has been helped enormously by the fact that Petit and his cohorts filmed themselves planning and rehearsing their escapade extensively, and he’s been able to incorporate excerpts from that footage, as well as from televised news reports of the event from a quarter-century ago. But he also includes well-chosen commentary from recent interviews with Petit and those who helped him that allows them to look back on their experience and communicate the sense of excitement—and often fear—they felt at the time. And to the customary archival stills and newspaper headlines he adds atmospheric recreations to accompany the interviewees’ recollections—most notably scenes recounting how the crew managed to make their way to the top of the buildings and had to resort to extreme measures to avoid being caught by security guards.
Marsh is also fortunate in that the people he’s dealing with are such an engaging bunch. Petit, whose childhood daredevil inclinations and later public stunts (like traversing the space between the spires of Notre Dame cathedral or the towers of the Sydney Harbour Bridge) are dealt with in delicious detail, is an excitedly fluent memoirist and, more importantly, a pleasantly insouciant fellow whose obsessive quality avoids seeming like derangement (a restaged scene in a dentist’s office, dramatizing how he was first struck with “World Trade Center fever,” is striking). And his erstwhile girlfriend Annie Allix and long-time helpers Jean-Louis Blondeau and Jean-Francois Heckel are all likable as well, so much so that there’s a certain poignancy not only in the comparison of their present selves to the younger versions shown in the archival shots but in their comments about their post-walk relationships with Petit.
And there’s a charmingly roguish side to Petit’s American accomplices, a hastily-assembled trio that included a risk-loving “inside man” at the Center (Barry Greenhouse) and two rumpled seventies counter-cultural types, David (aka Donald) Foreman and Alan (aka Albert) Welner.
In assembling the material Marsh, who previously made the stunning “Wisconsin Death Trip,” adopts a style that may strike you as reminiscent of Errol Morris. He goes for a slightly off-putting mood and a sense of strangeness, even in the way he frames the interview subjects as he introduces them. As his use of the churning minimalist strains of Michael Nyman’s music calls to mind Morris’ dependence on Philip Glass’ similar scores. But also like Morris, Marsh manages to build an emotional connection between his subjects and his viewers without resorting to the personal essay form that places the filmmaker front and center in the fashion of a Michael Moore.
Documentary filmmaking, like tightrope-walking, is inherently a risky business, depending on choosing material engaging enough to hold a viewer’s interest and then constructing it so that it actually does so. In this instance Marsh shows real mastery in both respects. He emerges from his traversal as triumphantly as Petit did from his (though, to be honest, the result would have been less disastrous for him if he’d stumbled along the way).