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Man on Wire Film Review

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Documentary Revisits Philippe Petit's Death-Defying High-Wire Walk between the Twin Towers

On the morning of August 7, 1974, a street performer named Philippe Petit sucked the collective breaths out of the world's stomach when he performed a death-defying, high-wire act between the roofs of the Twin Towers. The daring feat was an achievement almost as impressive as the construction of the magnificent World Trade Center itself, given that because it was not only illegal, but had to be pulled off in absolutely secrecy.

Just think, not only did he have to gain access to the top of the buildings, but he had to figure out a way to string a 200 feet-long, 450-pound cable between them. And he had to factor in that by design the Towers were constantly swaying slightly, more so on windy days. Therefore, any attempt to cross between them without a harness or parachute would seem almost suicidal to any sane person.

Obviously, Petit is a special case, since the fearless Frenchman became consumed with attempting the stunt in 1968, right after reading an article about the erection of the Twin Towers while waiting in his dentist's office. So, for six years he methodically planned every aspect of his historic walk in meticulous detail, knowing full well that he still could lose his life in a fraction of a second from a momentary slip or loss of balance.

Jean-Louis Blondeau on a tightrope.
2008 Jean-Louis Blondeau / Polaris Images

Man on Wire is a riveting documentary which revisits the events surrounding Philippe's secret mission, including his enlisting the assistance of a handful of accomplices. From flying over the Towers in a helicopter, to securing fake badges to bypass WTC security, to smuggling heavy equipment inside, he and his intrepid band of co-conspirators recount the particulars of their espionage-like operation.

One confesses that he wasn't quite sure whether Petit was a nut or a con man, yet he opted to persevere in helping his pal realize his dream. It is fascinating to learn that Philippe was essentially a self-taught aerial artist with little experience who had previously supported himself doing pantomime and magic tricks as a street performer.

The film is guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes, when August 7 finally arrives, and we are treated to the breathtaking spectacle of Petit poised to take that first step off one of the Towers. He then proceeds to make 8 crosses back and forth between the buildings at 1368 feet in the air, teasing the exasperated cops imploring him to return to the roof.

Instead, he lies on his back soak in the view, kneels as if in prayer, salutes the heavens, and even peers down into the crowd which had formed far below. Curiously, Philippe says his scariest moment came back on terra firma after he was handcuffed by police and almost broke his neck when an officer shoved him down a flight of stairs. Ain't that just like New York?

An exhilarating film for the ages not to be missed, either for its enlightening peek inside the elite mind of an extraordinary individual or for its ethereal tribute to the Twin Towers.

Excellent (4 stars)
Rated PG-13 for sexuality, nudity and drug references.
In English and French with subtitles.
Running time: 94 minutes
Studio: Magnolia Pictures

To see a trailer of Man on Wire

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