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.