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Reviews - Man on Wire

Man on Wire

Reviewed By John Stakes

Man on Wire
Man on Wire
The problem with reviewing documentaries on cinema screens is how do you measure their quality cinematically? When in doubt audience reaction is as good a yardstick as any.

Last Sunday’s film was BBC director James Marsh’s documentary on the idiosyncratic French tightrope walker Phillippe Petit titled “Man on Wire” which was the log entry heading by the New York police following his arrest on the 7th August 1974 for having dared to tightrope walk the 200 feet gap spanning the 1500 feet summit of the Twin Towers at the NY Trade Centre. The towers had only just been built, and, having been inspired by a magazine article whilst in a dentist’s waiting room, Petit had used the construction time to get in some useful training by tightrope walking Sydney Harbour Bridge having already cut his teeth as it were on the top of Notre Dame !

Marsh had two problems to solve. First – Petit’s indefatigable nature. Our hero revealed himself as an apparently fearless obsessive whose self belief knew no bounds and was matched by his determination to hog the camera. Here there was no contest and Marsh simply capitulated and allowed Petit to dominate the film.

His second problem was how to construct his documentary. A full reconstruction was obviously out of the question, and even if the Twin Towers were still in situ, Marsh would have had to ask Petit to repeat his “sublime piece of audacity” and “victimless crime” as the authorities would never have given permission. Neither was there any newsreel or archive footage to splice in. Marsh’s answer was to rely largely on the team’s edited personal accounts of their experiences as they planned and executed this magnificent folly plus some cine footage.

It was through these personal accounts that the full magnitude of their daring, fear, trepidation and elation was revealed and the cost to themselves. In the process we learned about asymmetrical rigging to reduce torsion, how the wire was strung (initially by firing an arrow to which a fishing line was attached), and how the two teams led by Petit dressed as white and blue collar workmen to evade detection.

When asked why he’d done it (he crossed eight times) Petit replied “there was no why”, but of course there was. It was a self imposed challenge. Petit basked in the brief spotlight, instant stardom and celebratory sex with a complete stranger, and lived up to his own maxim that life should be lived always on the edge. That was to cost him his friendship with his accomplices and his relationship with his partner Annie who summed up the whole mad enterprise by saying “he expected me to follow his destiny but he never asked me if I had a destiny of my own”.

The near sell-out audience clearly loved the film which was voted by far the most popular film in what is becoming a remarkable season.

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Keswick Film Club won the Best New Film Society at the British Federation Of Film Societies awards in 2000.

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