May 15, 2013

MAN ON WIRE Dares Me To Go Big

"I would have a toothache for a week.  But what's the pain in comparison?  Now I have acquired my dream."
Documentaries are a tricky business.  There's an element of timing that presents a unique challenge to the genre; so many docs focus on some long-past event of which limited (or even no) actual video was captured.    With the increasing ubiquity of personal video devices (it still blows my mind that I have an HD camera on my person at all times) documentaries about recent events or individuals usually have a glut of moving images to sort through, while subjects which are historical in nature can be more problematic.  Sure you can get hours of interview footage after the fact, but in today's crowded cinematic landscape, talking heads will only get you so far.  This inevitably leads to staged reenactments which strive to rise above the quality stuff like Unsolved Mysteries or Rescue 911.  Different docs have found various ways to spice up these staged scenes in order to keep them from getting too hokey (I particularly liked the method utilized by Shut Up Little Man!) and the execution of this material tends to be instrumental in defining the style of the overall picture.

Director James Marsh somehow managed to get extraordinarily lucky with his film Man On Wire, the story of a French wire walker named Phillipe Petit who, at the age of 24, spent the better part of an hour balancing on a cable between the two towers of the World Trade Center on August 7th, 1974.  There is a fair amount of reenactment, all shot in black and white with a style that relies on sharp angles and shadow to obscure the actors' faces.  It's a smart choice, as it helps to integrate the staged elements with period images of the real Petit and company.  You see, apparently someone was very conscious of posterity as Petit prepared for his death defying act, because there are hours of vintage footage of the young Frenchman planning the stunt, practicing in a field at home, and pulling off similar feats at the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the towers of the cathedral at Notre Dame.  There's also plenty of footage of the final act in New York, but a lot of it is understandably from the local news.  But for the early 1970's, it feels pretty astonishing that Petit and his crew were able to capture so much in the days before VHS made video recording commonplace.

How do you know I'm a film geek?  Because this guy walked on a wire between the tallest buildings in the world (at the time) and I'm fascinated by his ability to get it all on camera.

The act itself is pretty astounding, doubly so when you consider all the work Petit and his crew had to undertake simply to make the stunt possible.  Obviously the building managers would never give these guys permission to attempt this insane feat, which means the whole thing had to be prepared and carried out surreptitiously.  Petit spent months staking out the World Trade Center, looking for weak points in the building's security while also trying to figure out the actual mechanics of suspending a wire from such a great height.   At one point, while walking around the construction site (the top floors of the building were still incomplete) Petit actually stepped on a nail, forcing him to spend the next few days on crutches.  Hilariously, his physical impairment only served to aid his reconnaissance efforts, as nobody stops to question a guy with crutches.  Just the opposite: they literally held open doors for him.  Petit even pretended to be a French journalist doing a story on the building in order to get information from the workers on the top floors.  (The president of the WTC Association never asked him for credentials because it just wasn't standard operating procedure at the time.)  When the day finally came, Petit and his team posed as workmen in order to get themselves and their equipment up onto the roof.  They even had an inside man (with incredible facial hair) who signed off on their phony work orders, wanting to get in on the action after seeing Petit perform street magic in Paris.  The men spent most of the evening hiding under tarps on the top floor until it was safe to begin rigging up the cable connecting the towers.  How did they manage to get the cable across?  By literally shooting an arrow from one rooftop to the other. They then toiled away through the night in order to secure the wire and as dawn broke over New York City, Petit stepped from the roof of the building and walked out into the open air.

It feels almost miraculous that Petit didn't kill himself.  It's not a matter of skill, as his wire walking talents are pretty much unassailable; mostly I'm impressed that nothing went horribly, horribly wrong in the process. In the various interviews and the clips of the young men plotting everything out, it becomes clear that Petit was more focused on simply getting out onto the wire than he was on trying to make sure that he was going about it in the smartest, safest way possible.  He wants to go, go, go and his team is constantly trying to bring him back down to Earth, telling him that they're not ready yet and there is still work to be done.  Some of them are rightfully terrified that if everything isn't perfect, this thing will all end in tragedy: not only will they lose their friend in a horrific manner, but they'll likely be held responsible after the fact.  Petit feels like one of those guys who's used to everything somehow just working out in his favor, while meanwhile there's a group of stressed and frustrated people sweating the details right behind him.  I've certainly found myself on each side of that equation in the past, leading to more than one intense argument among friends.  Petit is passionate and driven to succeed and that's commendable, but that emotion ultimately has to be tempered by reason..  I had a similar outlook in my younger days, but I haven't had such an intense and singular focus on anything like that in years.  Is this general malaise a symptom of getting older?  Or is it something else entirely, something mindset I can shift out of if I find the right goal?  Right now a lot of my focus is on these movies, but I can certainly do better.  I've got 78 viewings under my belt so far, but only about 50 articles.  Perhaps I haven't shown enough focus, enough persistence.  I've been wading hip-deep into the waters.  It's time I jump into the deep end.

When Petit finally stepped back onto solid ground and was taken into custody by the NYPD, one of the officers said, "I personally figured I was watching something that somebody else would never see again in the world.  Thought it was once in a lifetime."  The destruction of the Twin Towers aside, this statement rings very true; this kind of stunt feels almost impossible to pull off in the post-9/11 world, especially considering how much of the planning and execution was made possible due to lax security.  The film opens with a re-staging of the night before Petit's midair jaunt, and the whole thing is staged like a heist.  That's a very apt description as, logistically speaking, the whole operation is essentially a heist in which nothing gets stolen and everyone gets caught.  But the 1970's were a simpler time, and I can't help but wonder if there's anyone out there today who's willing to go to such great lengths for this kind of stunt, especially when they're just as likely to get mistaken for a terrorist as they are to die from the inherent risks involved.

That's not to say it can't be done.  Man On Wire is, at its heart, the story of a talented guy with a dream who refuses to stop until he's achieved success.  It's proof that when a person is truly committed, they can accomplish anything.

Title: Man On Wire
Director: James Marsh
Starring: Phillipe Petit, Jean Francois Heckel, Jean-Louis Blondeau, Annie Allix, David Forman
Year Of Release: 2008
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (Laptop)

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