Director: James Marsh
By Marilyn Ferdinand
On January 30, 1962, while The Flying Wallendas were performing their patented seven-person pyramid on a high wire in Detroit, the front man faltered under the weight of the family members he was carrying, and the pyramid collapsed. Two members of the act, patriarch Karl Wallenda’s son-in-law Richard Faughnan and his nephew Dieter Schepp, died, and Wallenda’s adopted son Mario became a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair. In 1978, Karl Wallenda, who had wowed crowds by standing on his head while suspended over the Tallulah Gorge in Georgia in 1970, would lose his own life in an exhibition walk between two towers of the 10-story Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Karl knew the risks, but said, “Life is being on the wire; everything else is just waiting.” His family continues to perform.
I was 7 years old when the tragedy in Detroit occurred. I remember seeing front-page pictures of the pyramid while still intact, as it started to crumble, and as its various members pitched as though diving into a pool. As I watched a three-man pyramid this summer at Cirque du Soleil, I dropped my eyes until I was sure they were safe, remembering the pictures that left an indelible impression on my young mind. Nonetheless, the tragedy of 1962 sent me on a quest to learn everything I could about the Wallendas, a German circus family that had been working as The Great Wallendas from the turn of the 20th century until the mid 40s, when a reporter renamed them as he watched them take another, less destructive, fall.
Philippe Petit, the subject of James Marsh’s documentary Man on Wire, was a youth of 12 living in Paris when the pyramid collapsed. Had he seen the picture, too? If he did, he wasn’t daunted by it. Always a restless lad who loved to climb, he became a juggler and street performer and taught himself wire walking. In 1971, Petit strung a wire between the two towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and took a stroll. His arrest for that escapade did nothing to deter future adventures, and in 1973 he walked between pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia. He was arrested again, one of 500 arrests he’s racked up, mainly for performing in the streets.
One day in 1968, he went to the dentist with a bad toothache. Looking through the reading materials in the waiting room, Petit says he found an article that discussed a proposal to build two towers in Manhattan. The article was illustrated with the proposed design, squares standing corner to corner and rising more than 100 stories in the air. Petit says he became so excited, he tore the page out of the publication (covering the sound of the rip with a faked sneeze) and raced into the street; he didn’t get his tooth fixed for a week.
Petit carried on with life as usual, single-mindedly pursuing Annie Allix, whom he absorbed into his dreams, and drawing his friend Jean-Louis Blondeau and others in his circle into helping him with his obsession, which became more and more real as ground was broken on the World Trade Center complex. The plan took more than six years to realize, but on August 7, 1974, Philippe stepped out onto a steel wire strung between the almost-completed Twin Towers and into history.
As a documentarian, Marsh was fortunate that so much of Petit’s life and accomplishments were recorded on film, and that he had Petit’s autobiographical book To Reach the Clouds to reference for the script. He is able to show Petit performing on the street, wire walking Notre Dame and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, preparing for the WTC walk in planning sessions and through trial walks in a field with his friends shaking the wire to simulate the torque and possible winds he would encounter in New York, and the reactions of witnesses to his seemingly impossible accomplishment. Marsh supplements this archival footage with talking-head interviews with all the principals who took part in Petit’s exploits, including the Australian buddy Mark Lewis who helped him with his bridge walk but bowed out of the WTC “coup”; Jean-François Heckel, whom Petit met a few days before the WTC walk and who became his only accomplice in the South Tower after American Alan Welner abandoned the feat when daylight broke and the wire was still not ready; and Barry Greenhouse, a flamboyant worker in the WTC who bumped into Petit by accident, remembered him from his street performances in Paris, and agreed to become Petit’s inside man.
Marsh also resorts to skillful reenactments to portray the events leading up to the WTC walk. I find it interesting how much Errol Morris has been castigated for reenactments in his films, most recently and vociferously for Standard Operating Procedure (2008), and how there wasn’t a peep that I could find about Marsh’s use of it. I imagine the subject matter of the respective films had something to do with it, but perhaps reviewers find Petit a more reliable witness than the Abu Ghraib MPs, a belief, if it exists, I find fairly laughable. We learn that Petit and Jean-Louis never trusted Alan, who confirmed their lack of faith, but did they come to that assessment after he backed out and rewrite history to accommodate his behavior? We’ll probably never know, but Petit is a showman and certainly was an extremely charismatic person in his youth. His story cannot be taken at face value, though few viewers of this mind-boggling movie—like the witnesses to his extraordinary feats—will care.
Even though the outcome is already known, Marsh effectively builds tension through his reenactments. Man on Wire effectively communicates Petit’s poetic regard for his calling (not to mention his amazing engineering skills), but it’s not one that’s easy to share until we’ve actually seen Petit return safely to the ground. Petit has had a peak experience, and having witnessed other such experiences myself (Andre Agassi winning Wimbledon, the U.S. Hockey Team winning gold at the 1980 Olympics), I understand the awe and feeling of oneness they inspire. But we also experience just how much Petit has asked of his friends, particularly Jean-Louis, who sobs himself silent after he tells Marsh what he felt after he knew Petit was safe. Jean-Louis and Petit’s friendship would end that day; Annie and Petit also ended their relationship then, though Annie is much more understanding, feeling that she had played her part in reaching this goal and that it was time to move on. Was it fair of him to use his great personal charm and single-mindedness to put his friends in legal and psychological jeopardy? Only they can answer that question, but this film left me with a peculiar, not altogether pleasant, feeling for which the trailer for the film did not prepare me:
Today, Petit lives in Woodstock, New York, with his longtime companion and producer Kathy O’Donnell, where he is restoring a barn using only 18th century tools and techniques and practices wire walking several hours a day. He has counted among his celebrity friends Marlon Brando, Werner Herzog, and Debra Winger, the last of whom is helping him to raise the money for an attempted walk across the Grand Canyon. He vows that if the Twin Towers are rebuilt, he will dance between them again. Remembering the Wallendas, remembering the people jumping from the burning Twin Towers, I’d rather he didn’t.