Betsy Cass revels in the transcendent awe of Man on Wire and discusses the sea change in modern documentary filmmaking.

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The documentary landscape looks very different than it did 10 years ago when Man on Wire premiered. I won’t blame the film—change was already afoot after the explosion of Super Size Me and a few Michael Moore films—but its success almost certainly helped usher in a new era of non-fiction filmmaking, forgoing the personal, prodding, and political works that had largely come before and replacing them with films aiming for something entirely different: popularity.

A quick scan of the Oscar winners for Best Documentary Feature in the 10 years that preceded and followed Man on Wire reveal a strong trend. The preceding 10 winners examined the holocaust (The Last Days, Into the Arms of Strangers), terrorism and war (One Day in September, Taxi to the Dark Side, The Fog of War), America’s justice system (Murder on a Sunday Morning) and relationship with violence and firearms (Bowling for Columbine), impoverished children in India (Born into Brothels), climate change (An Inconvenient Truth) and a good old-fashioned nature documentary (March of the Penguins). When Man on Wire won, it was a popular favorite, but many were upset that it took the prize from the more “important” film Trouble the Water, which looked at the human aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Since then, popular winners have included The Cove (an activist piece about dolphin hunting), a film about a high school football team becoming less bad (Undefeated), three documentaries about singers (Amy, Searching for Sugar Man, and 20 Feet from Stardom), and a film about Russian doping that was originally just an excuse for an actor to make a movie about himself (Icarus). Other notable documentaries that have been surprising “hits” include Blackfish, The Imposter, Three Identical Strangers, Catfish, and Exit Through the Gift Shop (I’m probably forgetting many others), as well as countless contributions in TV and podcasting. Many of these films are stories with a pre-plotted endgame. They are not examining, but rather just retelling. They are frequently great stories told by unskilled, non-professional filmmakers who manage to lessen the impact of the piece, but not ruin it entirely because the story is so damn good. Everyone’s a documentarian these days and if you find the right subject, you too can have a hit and begin your journey to Hollywood.

So where does that leave Man on Wire? Does it still emotionally resonate? Or does it come off as frivolous and manipulative? I was deeply affected by it when it came out, much to my own shock. I recommended it indiscriminately, which I rarely do. It hadn’t even seemed up my alley, and while I saw it on the basis of strong reviews, I probably wouldn’t have bothered had I not been trying to escape my non-air-conditioned Chicago apartment in July. It’s certainly a film with a crowd-pleasing, self-propulsive story. Most of the important footage and documentation was provided by the subjects themselves. And main man Philippe Petit is so engaging and charismatic you could watch him paint a fence. Still, the first time I saw it I was unsuspecting of the emotional punch and unjaded by a decade’s worth of “indie box office bait” documentaries. It seemed impossible to be so rapt again. Luckily, director James Marsh, a seasoned filmmaker, sees past the glossy, obvious surface of the story to find the harrowing and heartbreaking soul underneath, carefully revealing it layer by layer.

The premise offers instant interest: a man wirewalking between the twin towers of the World Trade Center with no net and no harness. It’s a mad tale that I’m flummoxed took decades to tell on film. At first, Marsh is straightforward with his presentation, leading the audience to think this will be a basic, if playful, retelling of an extraordinary event. But it quickly becomes clear there are elements the audience hasn’t thought of, at least not deeply.  The magnitude and madness of the idea are one thing, but logistics of pulling it off are entirely different. How do you plan it? How do you get to the top of the buildings undetected with your equipment? How can you actually rig the wire between these two massive skyscrapers?

Philippe Petit's Performs High-Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers in 1974

It’s here the film takes a canny twist, becoming a recounting of a caper for the ages. There are false identities, inside men, midnight campouts inches from security guards, all described with immediacy and sparkle from those involved. Marsh also introduces several reenactments, which I am normally not a fan of in documentary, but here he uses them wisely for comic effect and to emphasize the tallness of the tale. There is a knowing, tongue-in-cheek feel that seems to acknowledge that these are dramatizations of the stories told by the participants, but maybe not fully the truth. There are plenty of “print the legend” moments. These dramatized segments are also intercut with large chunks of footage that were captured by the team as they were planning “Le Coup,” as they called it, from fields in France to the top of the World Trade Center. It’s shocking to think they filmed so much of what they were doing, including that which is seemingly banal, until you realize they were each small parts in the preparation for a monumental moment. There were so many obstacles, so many occasions when the team should have been busted and the plan should have fallen apart, that the film builds an extraordinary tension, a tumbling, freewheeling momentum as it propels itself toward the final act of the walk itself.

And then things change again. Everything stops. As the rigging problems are overcome and the window to get on the wire closes, Petit talks about the moment when he has to shift his weight off the building and onto the cable between the towers. He was not yet 25 years old, yet he was ready to die to fulfill his obsession and give an inimitable gift to the world. This is no longer a caper, a comedy or a zany reminiscence. It is a frozen instant of pure beauty that nothing in the film has prepared you for. All this frantic preparation was in the name of perfect silence, stillness, and focus. There is a religious, rapturous feeling to what Petit is doing. Those who were there crumble to tears recounting its splendor. A gruff, thickly-accented policeman who attempted to retrieve Petit seems hypnotized as he described the scene, saying he was really dancing, not walking, out there on the wire. Truly contemplating what he was doing for even a moment creates such strong vertigo as to make you weak in the knees. And with that physical vulnerability comes a flood of emotions as well. The graininess of the archival film enhances the dreamlike ballet Petit is performing in total isolation. Somehow the danger and madness melt away and all that is left is profound serenity and love.

It lasted for 45 minutes. And then it was done. Not just the courageously ephemeral beauty of the act, but also the relationships of those who’d once been so close in planning it. More like a shared tragedy than a triumph, Marsh is careful to show that the immensity of the letdown was insurmountable and final. But it had been worth it. You can see in it in the rawness of those recounting the moments that had transpired more than 30 years prior. None of them would ever be involved in anything as monumental or meaningful again. Yet they can hold on to what they created forever.

It’s hard to explain why exactly, but it gives me hope. The cynical part of me could look at this whole saga as idiotic, reckless, and arrogant. But just this one time, I’m not going to be cynical. There’s something intensely reassuring about the singular determination of Petit and his co-conspirators. Their plan was absurd. It should never have been accomplished, not only because of the very concrete difficulties in achieving it, but because finding a group so blindly committed to something so daring and unnecessary is almost unfathomable. Yet once the idea was borne, they were powerless to the enormity of it. Who were they to deny the world that which they knew was divine? And so they did what the rest of us never do: They risked everything for a fleeting moment of transcendent awe. Here, the film stands clearly with its subjects. Instead of merely recounting their unbelievable story, it actively works to transmit both the dazzling act and what it stood for: a reminder that these are the moments for which the greatest risks need to be taken.

Stray Notes:

  • Philippe Petit gives off some very strong “Gallic Malcolm McDowell” vibes in the archival footage.
  • As revealed in the film, “Man on Wire” is what was written on Petit’s arrest report.
  • These days if you pulled a stunt like that you would be banned from the Twin Towers for life. Instead, Petit was given a permanent pass to the observation deck (although at least one of his friends was expelled from America).
  • Some people say the later Robert Zemeckis film The Walk, which dramatizes the story and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit, is quite good and makes excellent use of 3D. I don’t know who these people are, but they must be wrong. I can’t imagine a universe in which that movie isn’t terrible and I refuse to see it as not to ruin the purity of the images of the actual event in my mind.

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