Man On Wire

One man's impossible dream is brought to life with stunning results

The subject for Man On Wire has been billed as the 'art crime of the century'. 

In telling the story of wire walker Philippe Petit, who traversed the twin towers of New York's World Trade Centre in 1974, filmmaker James Marsh does the subject justice and then some by producing one of the documentaries of the decade. 

Expect to encounter no schmaltz, no over-hyped Hollywood ending, just pure, unadulterated cinematic adrenaline as one extraordinary man turns a crazy dream into a tangible reality.

Man On Wire takes us back to the early 1970s, when the world was a very different place. Frenchman Petit experiences a moment of clarity in a dental surgery, and is instantly inspired to follow his new life’s dream: to walk on a wire between the world's tallest sky scrapers, 1,368 feet above the streets of Manhattan. 

Director Marsh tells the true story through a series of reconstructions and interviews with Petit and his band of followers.

Whilst the film is most certainly about Petit, throughout he fights constantly for attention with the two towers of steel and glass that so capture his imagination. The World Trade Centre is the silent star of the film, standing tall as a testiment to one man’s impossible dream and ultimate achievement. 

Marsh's brave decision to omit the ultimate fate of the towers from the story is key to the magic of the film. His genius as a filmmaker lies in his ability to enable his audience to view the Twin Towers anew as symbols of hope. 

Marsh replaces the images of destruction associated with September 11 with the image of a single moment of untarnished beauty, guiding us from Petit's moment of inspiration, through the months of planning required to achieve such a difficult (not to mention entirely illegal) goal, to the breathtaking spectacle of Petit defying death to traverse the unfathomable distance with balancing pole in hand.  

When Petit first stands atop the south tower, after months of meticulous preparation and a close call with the building's ever-present security guards, the magnitude of his dream finally hits home for filmmaker and audience alike.

Petit and his team hide on the south tower's roof overnight, and the film takes on an almost dreamlike hue, preparing the audience for the spectacle that is to come.

Although the vast majority of the film is made up of archival footage, in the event of the film's breathtaking climax Petit’s wire walk between the towers is recreated using still photography. Having sneaked into the south tower, Petit and Co were unable to conceal the equipment necessary to film the stunt. 

The silence and lack of motion during this final sequence, however, causes a profound release of emotion in the viewer. It is simply one of the most moving moments in cinema history. 

Time appears to stop. Petit defies death and embraces hope. In the aftermath of his walk, Petit and the collaborators that were so drawn to his magnetic personality, find their lives irrevocably altered.

It is no exaggeration to say that Man On Wire is one of the best documentary films of the decade. An incredible story, expertly told, there is almost nothing upon which the film can be faulted. Marsh is as much a magician as a director. Man On Wire is his, as well as his powerful protagonist's, greatest ever trick. 

Steven Rainey 

Man On Wire runs in Belfast's Queen's Film Theatre from September 5-18.