One morning in 1974, a tight-rope walker named Philippe Petit moved back and forth on a highwire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
How insane is that?
At first glance, you might be tempted to write off this high-wire artist and his group of accomplices as mere eccentrics. You might question the details of their memories and descriptions and call them exagerations. You might even say that they are foolish. And you might be right. And by the end of the film, you might find yourself hoping to become so foolish as to live your own life beyond your own boundaries of comfort and safety.
This group of friends is a disorganized bunch, and they are full of doubts about their ability to sneak themselves and the tons of necessary equipment up to the roofs of the two tallest buildings in the world. But Philippe’s focus and determination borders on pathological: you get the feeling that he will make the attempt with or without them. So, since they can’t beat him, many of his friends join him. Plus, they’ve seen the things he can do when he’s walking on a thread up in the sky.
Throughout the film, Philippe and his team of accomplices offer their testimonies of that day, and the years of planning that went into the act–laying bare their desires and misgivings and we begin to glimpse something very big–something about their unspeakable longings. And in the end, the brazen act of a tight-rope walk on top of the world becomes nothing less than glorious.
Even 30 years after the event, the members of Philippe’s team are still moved to tears at the beauty of the act they helped to engineer. The high-wire walk between the twin towers embodies, for them, not just a defiance of death, or a defiance of authority: it is an act of grace and beauty that transcends death, and that, for a moment, even elevates the authorities above their stations. One of the strongest moments in the film is the 1970s news clip in which a security guard tries to describe the event he witnessed while on the roof of the World Trade Center. He hesitates, searching for words, calling Philippe a tite-rop walker, but then corrects himself, saying that Philippe wasn’t merely walking, that it was more like a dance, with Philippe performing deep-knee bends, even lying for a moment on his back. The security guard says that he would never see anything like it again in his life. For the guard, the blatant transgression leaves him powerless, with few options apart from the act of bearing witness.
One of Philippe’s friends watching from the opposite tower said that only a few moments after Philippe first stepped out onto the wire, the look of horror on Philippe ‘s face melted into confidence, and he knew that his friend was going to be all right. Even with death right there with him, all around, and in the face of it, Philippe embodies defiance and beauty, confidence and grace.
So far, I haven’t mentioned September 11, 2001. And the film never overtly brings it up either. One interviewee says that the tightrope walk was, to him, the whole reason that the World Trade Center had been built–the culmination of its existence. But the undercurrent of 9/11 is there, masterfully avoided by the filmmakers, even while they display the World Trade Center as if it were a character in their story.
– During the film’s first hour, we see old footage of the World Trade Center during its construction, with scenes that echo images of ground zero. The construction site is an organized mess of heavy machinery, hundreds of construction workers, and hauntingly familiar steel structures that viewers will recognize from famous photographs taken on September 12, 2001.
– The team makes its covert plans for the high-wire walk years in advance, their reconnoitering becoming a kind of unspoken portent to those other plans that precede that other fateful morning decades in the future.
– And then there is the briefly displayed telephoto shot, from the ground looking up, of the high-wire act: we see the towers, the wire, Philippe, and a commercial airplaine passing high above him.
As this film unfolds, we are led to revisit and rearange our mental furniture with regard to those heavily burdened words: twin towers and World Trade Center. Without mentioning the wounds of 9/11, Man on Wire becomes a work of quiet healing by offering a larger vision of the place, and recentering our gaze onto an act of foolish grace that makes even the two tallest buildings in the world seem fragile in comparison.