Man on Wire (2008)

Director: James Marsh

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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.

wallendas.jpgI 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.

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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.

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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. Blondeau%20edit.JPGBut 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.

  • Ibetolis spoke:
    28th/09/2008 to 2:52 pm

    Great review Marilyn.
    I get what you’re saying, Petit’s enthusiasm and sheer will power consumed everyone around him. I can’t blame Jean-Louis for firstly being totally enamored by him and then by having to remove himself from his presence. When you achieve something like that, where do you go after that?
    I was totally moved by his friends emotional outpouring, that sense of ‘yes, we did it’. The euphoria and the reprecussions that followed were inevitable and extremely sad.
    Petit for his part was so wrapped up in his goal that he was totally blind to his friends commitment. I suppose that’s the way it is with people like Petit; that selfishness, that sheer determinism and drive, it’s what they live for and everyone else just become roadkill.
    For my part, my lingering memory of this film remains the policeman’s reaction to seeing Petit on the high wire. I just love how his expression changes when he realises what he’s just seen. Priceless.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/09/2008 to 4:40 pm

    Thanks, Ibetolis. I agree about the policeman. That sense of wonder that made him so unguarded and honest is something all too rare these days.
    I think it’s interesting that when I researched photos for this article, I couldn’t find any showing anyone but Petit. His accomplishment truly was a collaboration, but I guess since he took the mortal risk, he’s the one to whom all praise is due. I’ve seen cases where friends hold their more talented friends back, but that was not exactly the case here. It really did seem as if Petit gave them an all-consuming purpose, which is what we all want when we’re young. After that, it was time to find out what else they could do.

  • Daniel spoke:
    29th/09/2008 to 10:38 am

    Great, honest review here, Marilyn. I’m glad you ended up seeing it, even if it wasn’t exactly what you expected.
    I have to admit I had to go back and reread my own “review” of it because I could have sworn I made some of the same points you did! Alas, those must have existed only in my head or in comments I left at other reviews, though I did reference Errol Morris as well. I did, also, note as you did the somewhat selfish bullheadedness with which Petit approached these adventures. I found the last few minutes a tragic verdict on his self-obsession over the years – he appears to remain lonely to this day (I was unaware of O’Donnell), having lost many of his relationships and friends on the wire that day.
    One of the reasons I’m having a difficult time calling MoW the best documentary of the year (as opposed to something like Up the Yangtze or Young @ Heart) is in fact the reenactments. Some part of me feels like they were used for entertainment purposes, as if the simple retelling of the story wouldn’t have been interesting enough. They were well done, just a little fantastical, especially because, as you say, there is no way to corroborate Petit’s account of the story. Obviously he DID walk across the wire, but I’m having some difficulty swallowing the nude exploration of the rooftop and fateful rescue of the arrow teetering on the roof’s edge. That moment was the biggest stretch for me, and it made me begin questioning everything else in spite of myself.
    Credit is due for telling an inspiring story about human determination, and for maintaining suspense when the outcome is obvious, but beyond that I wasn’t really emotionally walloped by MoW like some others have been. I’ll live with an Oscar win (I do think it will win), but if I were voting this one probably wouldn’t receive my vote this year.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/09/2008 to 11:00 am

    I really have no problem with reenactments as long as the audience knows about them. A talking-head interview can be just as deceptive as a reenactment; editing can accomplish the same thing.
    I really do think this film is quite an achievement, given what an inert bore I thought Marsh’s Wisconsin Death Trip was. Man on Wire used archival footage with the same skill Barbara Kopple brought to Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing, a high compliment given how much I worship Kopple.
    What I got from the end of this film is that Petit moved on to a world of fame and celebrity, far from the lonely existence it might appear after having lost Annie and Jean-Louis. He was only 24, with much more living to do. Annie was lucky to get out; she hinted that her personal ambitions were buried in his enthusiasms. A man with his kind of charisma and zest for life will never be without friends, and he hasn’t been.
    He had, however, had to deal with the death of his 9-year-old daughter (with someone other than O’Donnell) from a brain hemorrhage. That must be a lonely feeling.

  • Marianne spoke:
    29th/09/2008 to 11:14 pm

    Fantastic review, I love your opinions on the themes of this movie.
    Though just a few notes:
    Jean-Francois had actually met Philippe once through Jean-Louis when they were rigging at Notre Dame, and it was Jim Moore who abandoned Jean-Francois and Philippe in the South Tower right before they had to go under the tarp. Alan abandoned Jean-Louis on the north tower.
    Thank you for a fantastic tribute. xD

  • Marianne spoke:
    29th/09/2008 to 11:19 pm

    Ahh actually I am realizing now it wasn’t Jim Moore, it was Donald who abandoned Philippe and Jean-Francois in the South Tower. Jim Moore backed out of helping on the rigging day when he saw how windy it could be up there, but didn’t really abandon or withdraw any help.
    See, it’s very confusing. xD

  • Marilyn spoke:
    30th/09/2008 to 9:05 am

    Marianne – These are straight from the production notes in the media kit for the movie. This should clear up personnel/events:
    JEAN-LOUIS BLONDEAU, a photographer and Petit’s friend from adolescence, was taking pictures when Philippe first practiced walking a tightrope between two old cedars in the backyard of a youth hostel in rural France. He was Philippe’s collaborator for the first illegal walk at Notre Dame and for the WTC coup. Jean-Louis came up with the idea to use a bow and arrow to pass the first fishing line between the two towers. On the night of “the coup” he successfully shot the arrow between the rooftops enabling Philippe to later pass the walk cable. All night Jean-Louis worked on the installation on the North tower opposite Philippe. Philippe’s success, and his survival, depended largely on Jean-Louis’ commitment and pragmatism. Although there was constant creative tension between them, Jean-Louis did not want his friend to die nor the coup to fail.
    ANNIE ALLIX, Philippe’s French girlfriend, brought to New York from Paris by Philippe for emotional support before the “coup.” Faithful to the cause, she is always concerned for Philippe’s safety, although at times she has her own doubts about Philippe’s vision of the crossing.
    JIM MOORE, Philippe’s first comrade in New York, who became an important accomplice during the intensive preparations in Manhattan. They visited the towers together many times, posing as deliverymen or journalists. When Philippe hired a helicopter for a 15-minute aerial survey over the twin towers, Jim took the pictures. But in the end Jim refused to be one of Philippe’s rooftop riggers on the fateful night.
    MARK LEWIS helped Philippe with his second illegal wire walk between two pylons of Sydney Harbour Bridge and then joined the team for the World Trade Center adventure. But, fearing for his friend’s life and not wanting to be complicit in his death, Mark decided to abandon the “coup.”
    JEAN-FRANÇOIS HECKEL was enlisted by Jean Louis to be part of Petit’s original team at Notre Dame. Brought from France to NYC two days before the walk, he is again enlisted by Jean-Louis to help bolster the team. In the process, Jean-François becomes one of Philippe’s most loyal accomplices and his invaluable, only helper on the South tower.
    BARRY GREENHOUSE, “a tall man in a three piece suit…with long black hair and an outrageous handlebar moustache above a long narrow beard”, who Philippe, at his lowest point, literally bumped into in the lobby of the World Trade Center. By chance, Barry, who worked on the 82nd floor of the south tower, had seen Philippe street juggling in Paris the previous year. As they talked, it seemed that Barry might be one of the keys to Philippe’s success. Philippe persuaded Barry to become the inside man.
    DAVID (A/K/A DONALD) FOREMAN, a ne’er-do-well rock musician, Foreman joined the team after the first failed attempt—ultimately expelled from the team by Philippe the night of the coup—but beforehand had introduced Philippe to his friend…
    ALAN (AKA ‘ALBERT’) WELNER, whom Philippe and Jean-Louis never trusted. But with the increasing pressure of time, Philippe felt he had no choice but to keep Alan in the fold. In the end it was Alan who almost prevents success by giving up when the team is working madly to complete the rigging at the 11th hour, and Jean-Louis is left with the impossible task of pulling the heavy walk cable all alone.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    30th/09/2008 to 3:20 pm

    Marilyn, a fascinating piece. I certainly think people’s different reactions to Morris’ re-enactments are due to the political nature of Morris’ subject.
    I also, upon reflection, think that peoples’ reactions to re-enactments are colored by all the sleazy television programs that use them.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    30th/09/2008 to 3:28 pm

    Rick – I’m thinking about using this piece as a springboard for an ethics discussion on the other site. What do you think?

  • Marianne spoke:
    2nd/10/2008 to 8:10 pm

    Thanks, Marilyn, that definitely clears things up.

  • stephenomist spoke:
    23rd/02/2009 to 11:26 am

    It’s ridiculous, how much I enjoyed & how much time I’ve spent blogging about this thoroughly enjoyable, and now Oscar winning documentary. Of course, Petit is an egomaniac, so what. His great fortune was his friendship with the deliberate and pragmatic Blondeau. Theirs is a yin-yang relationship. Petit uses the term “Quixotic” in the film. This is appropriate. And like Don Quixote’s sidekick, Sancho Panza, or like Capt. Call to Lonesome Dove’s Gus McCray, Blondeau serves as the essential alter-ego to Petit.
    In pulling off “the artistic crime of the century” Petit, Blondeau and their co-conspirators make Al Queda seem like a bunch of pussies.

  • Vincent spoke:
    24th/02/2009 to 8:40 pm

    I watched the documentary today and I’m at a lost of words at the moment..
    I just want to get some things straight. So Petit decided to end the friendship between Jean-Louis and his girlfriend Anna? Why is that? Because there was no need for them anymore? Somewhat selfish in my opinion..
    And what happened to Jean Francois Heckel? He was expelled from the U.S from what I saw on the film. Is this accurate? Or were all of them expelled?

  • Ele spoke:
    15th/12/2009 to 7:22 pm

    As to PP’s personality, he is just an extreme Leo. Ha! The important thing about artists is their work. The people around them often have to live with the havoc they wreak. Art is obsessional. It has to come first. We need eccentrics but boy, are they high maintenance! I thought PP’s friends were beautiful people both facially and in their humanity and this communicated well in the film, which was entertaining.

  • m spoke:
    21st/01/2010 to 10:31 pm

    RE:
    Ahh actually I am realizing now it wasn’t Jim Moore, it was Donald who abandoned Philippe and Jean-Francois in the South Tower. Jim Moore backed out of helping on the rigging day when he saw how windy it could be up there, but didn’t really abandon or withdraw any help.
    See, it’s very confusing. xD
    – Thank you for that correction. It was Jim Moore who was one of the first devoted to this project. It is confusing because the true story was never told in this movie from the point of view of the real artists who collaborated.

  • Nac spoke:
    21st/09/2014 to 5:20 pm

    I had a different understanding of the movie though. To me it look like Petit left his friend/girlfriend behind to enter the world of fame. As a matter of facts, he mentions how the first thing he did after walking out of the police station was cheating on Annie.

    So while inspirational, the movie leaves you with a bitter taste of mouth. Petit is an extraordinary person who did something most of us would consider impossible… but he was not a good guy. He was human, selfish and ingrate toward those that helped him achieve his goals even if it meant being at risk.

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