Man on Wire: The High-Wire Walk That Still Startles

Man on Wire documentary
One wire.

Here’s a documentary about the extraordinary achievement of high-wire artist Phillipe Petit in 1974.

Directed by James Marsh and launched in 2008, Man on Wire wowed with a heist-like sense of mischief, whilst highlighting a grand goal the likes of which only a madman could envisage.

The Man on Wire Documentary

Yes, then, this documentary could only ever take on a more terrible sense of poignancy after the September 11th attacks in 2001.

And that weight of history hangs over Petit’s original achievement, with Man on Wire bringing the buildings back—albeit for 94 minutes only.

As you can see from the pictures and trailer, Petit performed a high-wire act between the World Trade Centers. That was 1,350ft off the ground.

More recently documentaries, such as Free Solo (2019), have explored similar death-defying achievements.

Man on Wire is quite a different film. After exploring Petit’s upbringing, it informs us of his manic desire to tightrope walk between World Trade Centre towers.

They were completed in 1969. After he saw them in the French media, he became obsessed with walking between the two. A moment of mad genius, for sure.

But most people would leave such an idea as that. However, Petit just isn’t that sort of person.

And so a major section of the film deals with the planning and preparations for the event. Followed by the (very illegal) climb up the Trade Center whilst evading security guards.

This is almost as dramatic as the walk, with Petit and his accomplices hiding from flashlight wielding security guards at every turn.

After successfully making it to the top, Petit completed the walk on August 7th, 1974.

There isn’t video footage of the event, but his accomplices took several photographs.

For ordinary people like us lot reading this, you’d think Petit probably spent around five minutes out there before calling it a day.

Well, no, he was out there for a bloody hour. At one point he even lay down on the wire.

In the immediate aftermath, the documentary follows the media circus his stunt generated. Although he was arrested straight away, he was released without charge not long after.

And you watch all of this feeling pretty incredulous. How on earth was something like that even possible? Such a level of balance is beyond belief.

Man on Wire is pretty riveting as a result and deserving of its acclaim.

The documentary was a huge critical success, winning the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

It also won a BAFTA for Outstanding British Film and an Oscar for Best Documentary.

Commercially, it was a modest hit. Off its $1.9 million budget, it made back $5.3 million worldwide in cinemas. But subsequent awards success earned it a new audience.

About Phillipe Petit (and The Walk)

Petit is 72 now. He was born in Nemours, Seine-et-Marne, and was an avid climber from a young age. He took to a tightrope for the first time aged 16.

As Man on Wire explains, he’s exceptionally skilled across various acrobatics.

He’s a juggler, fencer, carpenter, rock climber, and bullfighter. Despite his skills, he never worked for a circus, instead creating a performance persona in Paris.

Prior to his trip to New York, he’d also performed a walk between the towers of the Notre Dame de Paris in 1971. During this performance, he was seen juggling balls and dancing around. The crowd gathered below applauded him.

After 1974, he made further notable walks. That includes in 1986 for the Niagara River film.

And in 1989, Parisian mayor Jacques Chirac actually invited him to walk from the ground at the Place du Trocadéro up to the second level of the Eiffel Tower.

His last major walk was in 2002, twice in New York and once in Crystal Palace (of London fame).

Petit has also been active as an author (writing eight books).

His story was brought to the public’s attention again in The Walk (2015) starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a questionable French accent.

Here’s Hollywood’s take on the wire walk, which is quite heavily Hollywoodised we must say. In almost comical, cliched fashion.

It’s interesting to note the difference between Man on Wire and The Walk for their key scenes.

The Walk plays it out in action fashion, with a helicopter buzzing overhead, an awed crowd below (who can, miraculously, make out exactly what’s going on 1,350ft above), and lots of shouting etc. Plus, there’s an errant seagull.

They might as well have drafted in Big Arnie for a cameo yelling, “Run! Go! Get to the chopper!

Then you get Man on Wire, which portrays the moment as one of repose and calm. Satie’s Gymnopédie No.1 plays over the top of pictures of the moment, revelling in the achievement as one of tranquility.

Well, it’s up to you to decide which depiction is more deserving.

Either way, Petit has secured his place in history thanks to his creativity, daring, mischievousness, and supernatural sense of balance.

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