One might wonder how you could make a feature length documentary about Philippe Petit’s unlikely 1974 walk across a tightrope stretched between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Even if you showed the entire thing, you’d only have a short film (and you can’t show the entire thing because evidently there’s no film of it, only still photos).
You could give some biographical background and such, but too much of that risks feeling like filler, and making the audience impatient to get to the stunt.
It turns out, though, that the very process of sneaking onto the roofs of the towers was an adventure in itself. That’s the focus of Man on Wire, and it’s handled with the suspense and drama of a bank robbery movie, with the difference being that this all really happened.
It’s still maybe a little much and drags just a bit, to spend that much time on the pre-tightrope walk material, but for the most part it works. As the participants talk about that day in the interviews, actors dramatize some of the events, and you really do get caught up in the suspense of Petit and his confederates tiptoeing around dozing guards, and hiding huddled under a canvas for hours because they have no way of knowing if the guard who entered the room ever left or not.
This is something they’d been planning for years, and they came within an eyelash of getting caught multiple times that night, which would have meant it could never happen.
You almost forget for a time that this is building toward something vastly more fraught with danger.
In looking back on it decades later, they remark what a rush it was trying to get away with something illegal like this that is sort of a big deal, but at the same time not really hurting anybody. I can identify with that, because that’s the only aspect of a criminal lifestyle that tempts me. I don’t want to be a crook because morally I couldn’t bring myself to victimize people like that, but I do like the idea of testing one’s wits against law enforcement, just as an elaborate game.
Like if it wasn’t for all the hacking people into little pieces and such, I could see being a serial killer. I’ve always wanted to be the kind of murderer who does the exact opposite of whatever “profilers” expect from a serial killer, just to show they can’t pigeonhole people accurately like that.
An interesting question to ask is how wide would a walkway—without walls or rails or anything, just the platform itself—have to be for you to be willing to walk across it between the towers like that? Two feet? Five feet? Ten feet? More? I don’t know that I’m particularly scared of heights—probably about as much as the average person—and it would have to be pretty darn wide for me to even consider it.
To be willing and able to do that you’d have to be a kind of person so different from me that it’s almost impossible for me to imagine being like that, like someone who’s extraordinarily gifted at playing music, or someone who can do calculations in their head a hundred times more complicated than what I’m capable of. But probably this is even more foreign to me. I’d be shaking like a leaf before I ever took the first step.
But now add to that the fact that he just went through an extraordinarily stressful several hours eluding the security guards (including hours spent hiding in a cramped position, afraid to move a muscle), never knowing if this walk would even take place. Then he and his team did a physically demanding several hours of labor in the wind and cold through the night setting up the elaborate rigging for the high wire that they stretched between the towers. The last little bit of it—if I understood the film correctly—Petit even had to do by himself, as the others had bailed, assuming that now that the sun was up, they had failed to set up in time and the walk was not going to happen.
So he pulls an all-nighter of emotionally and physically draining work, and only after that does he do his walk. As he says, when it finally was time to take that first step onto the wire, he knew he was probably about to die. But that didn’t stop him.
The walk itself is a little anti-climactic in that there’s just the still photos, but still, it’s pretty powerful stuff when you stop and think about it.
By most measures, he’s crazy. But certainly there’s a part of me that envies his being that passionate about something, that committed to it that he’ll do things to achieve it that 99.99999% of the human population would absolutely not do. It would be great if it were some wonderful heroic activity rather than a stunt, but really it’s that passion itself, that courage to take something that far, that’s admirable and amazing to behold regardless of its object.
At the end he talks about how that’s what life’s about, that if you’re not pursuing your dream with that kind of all-consuming drive and even recklessness, then you’re not really living. There’s some truth to that. Quite a lot in fact, though I wouldn’t expect a psychiatrist to agree that that philosophy of life is a healthy one when taken to this extreme.
For me, without a doubt the greatest passion of my life has been my love for the great love of my life and my dream of being with her and making a life with her, and, more broadly, my desire to have that kind of relationship in general with someone I could feel that way about who would feel the same about me. The main thing that blocked me from doing anything and everything I could to make it happen was that when you’re talking about a human being rather than buildings and wires and inanimate objects, you can harm the person by trying too hard. I didn’t pursue her ardently, because ardent pursuit when someone is not receptive constitutes stalking.
But short of things like that that would hurt her, there wasn’t much I wouldn’t have been willing to do to be in a position to act on my love for her. So in that sense I can sort of say I know what it’s like to have found the great quest of your life, to have something you can feel about the way he felt about walking a wire between the towers.
Now I admit, I’m under no illusions that I could have done extreme physical stuff like that, even for my great love. But that’s because my body isn’t capable of it. Like I say, totally involuntarily I’d be shaking like crazy if I got anywhere near that wire. But I do believe I could overcome the non-physical factors of fear and avoidance of risk and avoidance of death and all that, if in my mind I associated some task with serving her well-being, or being accepted back into her life as her mate.
Man on Wire is an intense movie in certain respects due to the subject matter. And I’m definitely glad I watched it. But I can’t say I was really into it the whole way. There were times I was a little bored, and wishing maybe this movie had a running time of twenty to thirty minutes less.