AIFF documentary 'Man on Wire' explores the adventurous instinct

There are those among us who pursue the inconsequential, who devote their lives to endeavors that might seem frivolous or on the fringe of all that is considered serious or substantial.

On the field of play, on the face of a mountain, racing the clock, searching for the ultimate wave, or stepping out on a precipice that is judged high risk. And when asked, "Why? Why do this? To what possible end?" they look momentarily perplexed, not because the question is unclear, but because ultimately there is no answer other than because they can, because living on the edge gives life an intensity, a fulfillment to be found no where else — briefly wondrous, exhilarating and suffused with meaning.

The answer given to the question of "why?" by Phillippe Petit — who, on August 7, 1974, attached a cable from the North and South towers of the World Trade Center and then stepped out, 110 stories above the streets of Manhattan, and then spent the next 45 minutes walking back and forth — was that the why of it wasn't relevant. He merely shrugged and smiled, signaling that for him no explanation was necessary beyond what he had done.

Unsatisfied by Petit's response, proffered opinions might be that walking the wire is a metaphor, a manifestation of the need to live life on the edge, as Petit says. Certainly it's an act ripe for Freudian analysis, and phrases such as "death wish" and "unresolved childhood conflicts" come to mind.

And then there is the famous response by George Mallory, English mountaineer, who was lost on Everest in 1924. When asked "Why? Why Everest?" he said, simply, "Because it's there. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. That is what life means and what life is for."

And there is joy embedded in the film "Man on Wire," which won the Sundance Jury and Audience prizes and chronicles Petit's gripping achievement.

From the moment Petit heard that the towers were being built, he was consumed with the idea of stepping out onto a narrow wire, and, with his long pole in hand, walking slowly across a canyon of metal and glass that defies description. Through archival footage, reenactments, interviews and early film footage, Petit explains the detailed preparation necessary to achieve his objective.

And so he practiced and waited. He strung a wire over a rural pasture in France; he walked the wire between the towers of Paris' Notre Dame; and then walked between towers of the City Harbor Bridge in Australia. And still he practiced.

When the towers were all but complete, in 1974, he began his plan to not only gain access to the two towers but to get his equipment to the 110th floor and there secure the 200 feet of cable between the North and South towers. All under the cover of darkness. All with the hope of evading the guards who patrolled regularly. It was the equivalent of pulling a complicated bank job.

The derivative excitement is not in the conclusion, for that is foregone, but is in the execution. In the anticipation. What drives the film is not the question, "Does Petit survive?" The thrill, rather, is in the planning of what he calls the "coup," and the terrifying contemplation of the extreme nature of what he and his cohorts are about to attempt.

And it is the challenge of the director, James Marsh, to inject into the film a tension which is derivative from the much anticipated climax: those breathtaking images of Petit standing on a fragile filament, moving deliberately across a man made chasm in relief against an early morning sky. In effect, this is Marsh's wire walk, for the bulk of the film details how Petit readies himself for the those final 45 minutes suspended above Manhattan.

The final moments of "Man on Wire" are sheer magic. Poetry, really. And, of course, there is the ever present subtext of the two towers, these looming, vertical rectangles of metal and glass, wrapped in the awful knowledge that on a fall day, set in relief against an achingly blue sky, they will come down.

The Ashland Independent Film Festival and Coming Attractions Theatres present two special showings of "Man on Wire" at the Varsity Theatre Friday, Sept. 12 at 6 p.m. and 8:20 p.m. to benefit the AIFF. Tickets are discounted 25 percent for AIFF members and available now at the Varsity Theatre Box Office. For more information or to see a film trailer of "Man on Wire," visit

Share This Story