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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 66.0° F  Fair
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Man on Wire: Balancing act
James Marsh's film documents audacity
Philippe Petit has nerves of steel.
Philippe Petit has nerves of steel.

"There is no why," Philippe Petit told reporters on his way to jail, back in 1974. Calm, yet ecstatic, the 24-year-old Frenchman had just spent 45 minutes on a wire suspended between the two towers of the World Trade Center. He'd crossed back and forth eight times, turning and running the other way when the police made a grab for him. At one point, he went down on one knee and raised an arm, bowing to the sky gods. Later, he reclined on the wire, head to toe, as if needing to catch his breath. From below, the wire was all but invisible, so it looked like Petit was resting on a cloud. And in a way, he was. The tallest buildings on the planet when he danced between them, the twin towers were a seemingly insurmountable challenge for a man who would settle for no less. It was as if they'd been put there to lift him into the realm of myth.

Man on Wire, James Marsh's documentary, may have been put here to do the same. What some of us remember as an elaborate daredevil stunt, Evel Knievel without the motorcycle, was in fact a work of performance art - "the artistic crime of the century," as the movie's press material describes it. Petit was no mere circus-act shill, drumming up publicity for some three-ring payday in the future. He was un homme d'honneur, a Hemingway-esque big-game hunter who affirmed life by defying death with grace and style. Or so he and Marsh would have us believe. And the highest compliment I can pay Marsh's stunning movie is that, while watching it, all of my reservations magically disappeared. Man on Wire, named for the criminal offense as it appeared on the police blotter, is thrilling, chilling and strangely uplifting.

The thrills and chills come not just from watching a man balance himself on less than an inch of steel cable a quarter of a mile up in the air but from the incredible amount of planning and execution that was required before Petit took his first step. Man on Wire works like a police procedural, taking us through the months of preparation and, one step at a time, the hours leading up to Petit's early-morning jaunt. Think bank heist, because that's what it most clearly resembles, what with all the equipment that had to be smuggled into the buildings, not to mention the security guards, who must have had some explaining to do later that day. Petit put together a team, all of whom are interviewed, most of them as awestruck today by what they accomplished as they were the day they accomplished it. Luck was a factor, as it always is in such situations, and one thing you can say about Petit is that he knows when to get lucky.

He's a fascinating figure - elfin, but with nerves of steel. Marsh has made good use of the home-movie footage at his disposal, showing us Petit in his old Parisian street-performer days, when he would pull up on his unicycle, charm the crowd with his various tricks, then return from whence he came. Petit taught himself how to walk on a wire and seems to have whatever is the opposite of a fear of heights. Or maybe it's fear that he's afraid of. Marsh allows him to tell his story, which he must have done a million times by now, but the guy is a born tale-spinner, acting out each line as if performing on stage. Also interviewed is Petit's girlfriend at the time, Annie Allix, who was a pushover back then, supposedly, but isn't one anymore. Always admiring Petit from below, she reminds us that there was a price to be paid for his egomania, but she, too, is still in awe. "Every day was a work of art for him," she says.

Man on Wire is a work of art as well, beautifully blending the interviews with what has to be the best use of dramatic reenactments - shot in black-and-white, no dialogue - that I've ever seen. Because there's no film or video footage of Petit straddling the towers, Marsh goes with stills, Erik Satie's first Gymnopédie providing a slight breeze on the soundtrack, and the effect is to suspend Petit in both time and space. The movie never once mentions what will happen to these 110-story gravestones years hence, nor does it have to. We've been thinking about it since Petit first hatched the idea of tying the two buildings together with a piece of string, pulling it taut and then walking off into history.

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