Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Man on Wire

When a documentary beats Slumdog Millionaire, Hunger, Mama Mia and In Bruges to the Outstanding British Film BAFTA you become very happy when it's just dropped through the letterbox. Simon Chinn and James Marsh's film tells the story (of which I was completely unaware) of Phillipe Petit's daring and illegal high-wire walk between the World Trade Centre's twin towers in New York in 1974. The mixture of interview, reconstruction and archive footage immediately brings to mind the superb Touching The Void (itself a BAFTA winner) and this film succeeds in much the same way; building tension, slowly revealing character and showing the devastating impact of a singular event on the lives of those involved.

The film drops you straight into the middle of the action as the various players make their way to the twin towers. Some have criminal sounding names like 'The Australian' or AKA's but we know that this is 'the artistic crime of the century', one with no victims, only leaving those who witnessed it touched by something special. At the centre, Petit is a clownish figure, unsurprising given his street-performer background, looking as a young man a little like Malcolm McDowell but his face now is softened and comical as he takes obvious pleasure from telling the story. This is contrasted with the obvious distress caused to those nearest and dearest to him. His girlfriend talks with great honesty about how this singular man completely dominated her life and conveys even today the sheer magic of being a spectator to his stunts. His closest friend Jean Louis Blondeau is touchingly emotional, conveying more than anyone else the culpability his accomplices felt in an event that could very well of course ended in death.

The element that luck plays in this plan's fulfilment is staggering and when you combine this with the fact that Petit had first come up with the idea on seeing a picture of the towers before construction had even begun (his simple hand-drawn line between the two buildings a perfect illustration of his joyous naivete) you begin to feel that this event had to happen. The effect on those who saw it is palpable, in one great piece of footage the arresting officer is clearly in thrall to this 'tight-rope dancer'. This is what makes the event and its remembrance in this superlative documentary such a fitting way to reclaim the towers from the event which removed them, the event which isn't mentioned once, but which casts such a long shadow that simply seeing a photograph of Petit on the wire, a plane flying past in the background, is enough to remind us of the singularity of his achievement, never to be repeated.

Even if you have a mild touch of vertigo like me Man on Wire is a must-see.


Demob Happy 19 February 2009 at 16:02  

Hi William,

This was one of my favourite films of last year. I mentioned in my own post on this (http://www.jamesewan.com/?p=547) how impressively the documentary form has evolved throughout this decade with the likes of Touching the Void (which you mention), Capturing the Friedmans and Grizzly Man. I was moved to tears by the Jean Louis Blondeau's account - he clearly took on a lot of the emotional burden during the project while his friend was turned into a star. I also love the way that it is constructed so economically into a kind of heist movie. A mini-masterpiece, in my view.

William Rycroft 19 February 2009 at 16:40  

Blondeau is so moving. There's that moment as he describes watching him walk the wire and realising that he was fine, that he wasn't going to fall, to die, and that moment of triumph is absolutely coupled with the realisation that at the same moment he loses him forever as a friend. For Blondeau, Petit effectively didn't come back from the wire. Amazing. You would have to find an extraordinary actor capable of describing all of that with a simple gesture.

I never really fancied 'Friedman's' but thanks for reminding me of Grizzly Man, that looks great. Good review by the way. I concur!

Gauri 22 March 2009 at 16:07  


Only just discovered your blog when I was stuck in the middle of 2666 and sorely wanted to discuss the book with someone else..
I really loved this movie but it also made me very very sad. Not sure why:) I think it is because of the absolute love all of Petit's friends feel for him as I mentioned in my post(http://60newthings.blogspot.com/2008/08/day-29-top-of-world.html)
Am realy enjoying your blog by the way

William Rycroft 22 March 2009 at 22:43  

Hello Gauri. Interesting to read your thoughts about Man On Wire. There is something very sad about the film. For me there was a moment when I realised that each of these talking heads really were separate, that this group of friends weren't recollecting this extraordinary moment separately for the convenience of the documentary format but because it had blown them apart as a group. And as James and I mentioned above it is Blondeau in particular who feels that loss keenly.

Thanks for taking a look at my blog, I hope you'll keep looking around, and if you ever need to talk to someone about 2666 I'll try my best!

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