This beautiful documentary follows the dreams of Frenchman Philippe Petit who in 1974, after six years of planning, walked on a steel wire between New York’s twin towers.
The tale is masterfully told by British director James Marsh (The King, Wisconsin Death Trip) using old footage of some of Petit’s earlier escapades seamlessly interspersed with reconstructions and interviews with some amusingly offbeat co-conspirators.
The plotting of such an audacious, as well as illegal, act required intricate planning by a dedicated team and the film is shot in the mode of a classic bank heist. As the ingenious plot unfolds, the tension builds – there’s the study of maps of the area and movements of the people inside the towers, fabricating false IDs, lugging equipment into position, the thrill and suspense of almost getting caught, and finally setting up the wire and executing the task.
The film is also a character study of a visionary artiste living literally on the edge. Central to the theme was Petit’s need to break through the barriers of society’s comfort zone, to step into the unknown and experience liberation, “to go where no man has gone before”. As he steps out on to the wire without safety equipment, he is in a state of intense concentration – the rest of the world ceases to exist and he is like an explorer taking the first step on a mythological voyage.
The film also works as a historical document of the early life of the twin towers. Petit’s plot started years before the towers were actually built, and he followed their construction in anticipation of realising his dream. There is no reference to 9/11, though knowledge of that tragedy adds poignancy. Both director and subject felt that such a mention would be disfiguring to the film, that it was a separate episode in the life of the towers, and that Petit’s act was completely life affirming – the opposite of 9/11.
Winner of the Edinburgh Film Festival audience award, the film is finely crafted, moving and, as Marsh wanted it to be, equal to the event itself.