Right at the tippy top

The spirit of 1974: Man on Wire

This is the most enjoyable documentary I ever watched.

Andrew Denton’s program on Philippe Petit contained quite a bit of the footage, but even if you saw that, you should still see the film. (And, whether or not you’ve seen or intend seeing the film, you should read the transcripts of the interview). Take every child over eight who is capable of sitting still (there’s a brief ‘sex scene’ of sorts, but it’s too weird to be disturbing).

It’s a fascinating, nail-biting and heart-warming story that just happens to be true, with mesmerising film footage, engaging characters, and an Aussie angle for good measure. The soundtrack is an asset– and what better opportunity to resurrect Michael Nyman’s rousing theme from The Draughtsman’s Contract.

Though I was twelve at the time of the World Trade Center walk, I have no recollection of it, nor for that matter of the Sydney Harbour Bridge walk. Nor do any of the handful of older people I’ve asked about Petit’s adventures. Presumably they heard about them at the time, but the events just became blurred in their memories with any number of other daredevil stunts. If so, it’s a credit to the makers of Man on Wire that they’ve made this escapade seem as significant as the Apollo 11 mission.

Readers won’t need any help from me to discover the joys of this film (if you hate surprises you can read Sandra Hall’s review), so I’ll restrict myself to raising one issue, which must occur to anyone who sees it — and may indeed have occurred even to those who saw only the Denton interview.

I assumed that there would be some comment, at least at the end, on the towers’ destruction. The story of Petit’s walk, from our present perspective, derives much of its poignancy from the subsequent the fate of the WTC: it’s completely impossible to watch the footage of the towers’ construction — those familiar steel ribs still visible, the men in hard hats milling around them — without thinking of the collapsed buildings, those steel ribs sticking up like skeletal remains, and the hard-hatted rescue workers — images etched deeply in our memory. These themes have been explored before — for example, in 2006 when The New Yorker published a September 11 edition, with some striking artwork. Madison Guy develops them further.

The questions are easy enough to fomulate. Was Petit sad that the buildings no longer stood to testify to the enormity of his feat? Was he in any way tormented by the thought that for Bin Laden too the Twin Towers were an opportunity for an audacious and breathtaking conquest (a coup, to be precise)? Was he not haunted by the fact that dozens of people had stepped into that same abyss, in a state of terror rather than elation, and yet perhaps experiencing in their final seconds some kind of kindred exhilaration?

But none of these questions were put, or answered. I don’t know why, or whether it’s a good thing that they weren’t. But we can be sure that it was a very conscious creative decision. Perhaps it was a declaration that history should be examined on its own terms, and not in the context of current preoccupations. Perhaps Petit wanted to reclaim ‘his’ towers, enlisted by him in a benevolent and beautiful cause, but usurped for a malevolent purpose. Or, what is most likely, the director thought that any discussion of September 11, and the inevitable footage of the planes and the smoke, would simply distract from the story and/or undermine its freshness and charm.

In any case, I wonder if Americans will take the omission as a mark of national disrespect, along with Petit’s ridicule of the police reaction to his exploit (‘Why did you do it, they asked — that was all they wanted to know!’). I hope not, because many of the Americans are represented very favourably. Indeed, the most memorable American character, the police officer who spoke to reporters after bringing Petit down, is a symbol of universal human decency and solidarity.

This is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen, so don’t miss it.

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Kevin Rennie
13 years ago

A must see at the cinema.

My thoughts are at Man on Wire: Twin Towers Tightrope

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

Good pictures, Kevin. I went up there in 1990.