Saturday, September 6, 2008

Man on Wire (2008, James Marsh)

“It scares you when you don’t know / whichever way the wind might blow.”

One of the tricks to making a successful documentary isn’t simply finding a story that’s worth telling, but telling that story in a way that’s both cinematic and narratively involving. In that respect, Man on Wire is one of the best documentaries to come along in years. Of course, it helps to have a good story, and Philippe Petit walking a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center is a doozy. But if Marsh had simply taken a talking-heads and photo-montage approach, the result would be better-suited to a stylistically inert program on the History Channel. Instead, Marsh intersperses the usual documentary stuff with dramatic re-creations of the day’s events, structuring the story as a kind of caper film (the film’s tagline calls the incident “the artistic crime of the twentieth century”). It’s a daunting task, trying to wring suspense from a story to which we already know the outcome- Petit is interviewed for the film, after all- but ultimately the gambit pays off. That it does is in large part a triumph of filmmaking technique, as Marsh and his interview subjects do such a good job of getting us caught up in the procedural details and snags of the day that one almost forgets that the ending is a foregone conclusion. This makes it all the more effective when Petit finally gets out on that wire for his historic crossing. I think it’s also key that Marsh refuses to invoke the specter of 9/11 for this film- when Petit (an extremely engaging subject, it should be said) speaks of “conquering the towers,” his aims are edifying rather than destructive, and in the end, what makes Man on Wire such a vital film is that it reclaims, albeit briefly, the World Trade Center from the hateful ideologies that tore it down. Even if the incident was little more than a extreme stunt, it matters little in light of the quixotic genius of it, and Man on Wire stands as a testament to the lengths a man will go in order to pursue a mad, brilliant dream. Rating: 9 out of 10.

1 comment:

Jason_alley2 said...

You know, I loved this movie, but the one thing that kinda bugged me was how it glossed over his subsequent estrangement from all of his old friends once he achieved the brief fame from the Twin Towers stunt.

It just kinda brings it up during the final montage and then doesn't really explore it before just ending. I don't know, it ended on a bit of a weird note for me because of that.