In movie 'Man on Wire,' twin towers live again

French aerialist Philippe Petit took a walk between the towers in 1974, and the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary about the feat fills a void for viewers.
French aerialist Philippe Petit took a walk between the towers in 1974, and the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary about the feat fills a void for viewers. (Magnolia Pictures)
Posted: September 04, 2011

There's a freeze-frame moment in Man on Wire, James Marsh's 2008 Oscar-winning documentary, in which French daredevil Philippe Petit can be seen midway between the World Trade Center's twin towers. He is 1,350 feet above Lower Manhattan, crossing the 200 feet of empty space between the buildings' tops on a taut cable. And a jet airplane is angling skyward behind him.

A jet. The twin towers. Need we say more?

But the beautiful thing about this image, and about Man on Wire, is that they bring the iconic skyscrapers - emblems of profound tragedy, of crisis and death - back to life. There is a human being there, a crazy, inspired human being, suspended 110 stories high - at the time higher than any building in the world. He has been plotting madly to do something to these massive tube-frame edifices, symbols of American capitalism. But his intentions aren't evil, they aren't steeped in fiery apocalypse.

His act is a celebration.

Marsh's film tracks Petit and his obsession with 1 World Trade Center. The ribbon-cutting for the North and South towers took place in April 1973. Petit, after years of plotting, made his historic, and illegal, walk in August 1974. We see Petit hatch his plan and recruit a small band of friends to help, and director Marsh, through reenactments, revels in the Ocean's Eleven-like planning and execution of this wonderfully ridiculous caper.

Now and then, on Turner Classic Movies or DVD, I'll be watching a film set in New York, from the '70s, the '80s, or the '90s. Inevitably, the not particularly beautiful rectangular slabs of the World Trade Center show up in a panning shot of the skyline. Sydney Pollack, in 1975's Three Days of the Condor, put the CIA's New York office in one of the towers, and Robert Redford's on-the-run hero, trapped in a government conspiracy, walks through the lobbies, the hallways, across the plaza out front.

It's impossible to watch these movies now and not think about 9/11 and al-Qaeda, the bodies falling from the exploding floors.

And for a time, in the years immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, it was likewise impossible to watch a movie with its establishing flyovers of Manhattan, its sweeping panoramic views, and not think about the absence, the missing silhouettes.

Man on Wire brings them back, it fills the void. In its depiction of human agility, of human creativity, of utter lunacy and daring, the film amazes.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/onmovies/.

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