A spoilt child, a fearless acrobat, a romantic adventurer, a narcissist with little or no regard for those around him? Philippe Petit is all of the above.
Before I watched Man on Wire I was vaguely aware of news footage from my childhood of daredevil tightrope walking, and I had heard stellar reviews from film critics I respect. Even then I was swept away by the opening sequences, caught almost breathless by the imagery, the beauty and the flights of fancy… Richard Nixon declares from the TV set “I am not a crook”. The foundations to The World Trade Centers are laid: despite any explicit references to 9/11 within the film, these shots immediately resonate – the beginnings of the mighty superstructures look eerily like the remains. And then in a whimsical, fantastical flashback we see a child Philippe dressed as a circus performer, fleeing the dentist’s waiting room on a unicycle. This is no ordinary documentary.
The grainy archive stills of his ‘performances’ above Notre Dame in Paris and The Sydney Harbour Bridge are stunning, set to The Lark Ascending, Michael Nyman’s eclectic scores for Peter Greenaway’s films and the lilting beauty of Satie’s Gymnopedies. The lack of technology makes his planning seem almost amateurish, and yet he never doubts his capabilities for a second. He appears carefree to the point of being slapdash. His team seem to take the burden of responsibility for him, for the equipment, for everything. Tensions become insurmountable, and gradually his companions feel no longer able to make excuses for him.
And yet this self-indulgent, childish protagonist can be immensely charming and charismatic. The whole story plays out like a magical Boy’s Own Adventure. The graphics of planes crossing the Atlantic from France to New York remind us of Indiana Jones and classic tales of derring-do. He does magic tricks, he acts out his dreams in the meadow at the end of the garden. When devising the idea of shooting the initial wire from the top of one tower to the other, he looks like he’s playing bows and arrows, like Robin Hood. To get into the World Trade Center he becomes a spy, with fake ID (and everything!). It’s a heist movie, but one created in the mind of a child…
Even though we know how things end, the storytelling is exciting, recreating the tension and raw insanity of this escapade. Yet Philippe Petit never looks like he’s even capable of falling from the wire. His achievement earns him an almost awe-struck respect from the NYPD, but just as we are basking in his glory, he runs off with and beds a pretty stranger, seemingly unaware of or uncaring about how this might affect his partner and friends. This is a beautiful, exhilarating, bravura piece of film-making about a remarkable story. It was on BBC2 last Sunday night. I strongly recommend it – watch it on i-player, rent or buy the DVD.