Thankfully — and conspicuously — 9/11 is never mentioned in this fanciful recounting of French tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s daring and illegal skywalk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. Rather, well-crafted assemblages of interviews, archival materials and whimsically stylized re-enactments restore a much-needed dash of naiveté and magic to an ugly building whose mythology is otherwise shrouded in darkness.
Man on Wire follows a quirky, fated logic of poetic collision, wherein Petit and the World Trade Center start off at a vast distance — briefly acquainted through a photo spread in Paris Match — and grow gradually closer and more familiar in the build-up to the big day. Indeed, there’s a sort of first date anticipatory tension not unlike the planning phases of your average heist movie (say, Ocean’s 11 or even Entrapment). The pieces come together, Petit trains, crewmembers on both sides of the Atlantic join and disband, there are arguments and moments of realization, and all the while the towers grow into their hideous, clunky frames.
The narrative is a wonderfully edited and engaging mix of loquacious French aesthetes rhapsodizing over the poetic beauty and daring of the act, more monosyllabic Americans justifying their participation, and hilariously wacky re-enactments. “The coup” (as the group called the event during planning) happens in a cheesy 70s crime-saga aesthetic, with hideous broad-collared shirts, massively ugly suits and simply massive sideburns. Scenes of Petit’s early acrobatics development, meanwhile, are rendered in the wacky silent film style of Buster Keaton movies. The influence of Guy Maddin’s period-popping style is in there somewhere.
Coordinating the coup is so chaotic and grueling for perpetrators and spectators alike that when Petit finally steps onto the wire everything stops and the next few minutes are pure bliss. In the same moment, all of Man on Wire’s potent analogies come to fruition. Walking weightlessly, defiantly between the two-pronged epitome of mindless profit-driven innovation, Petit and his team of dreamers and dropouts perform the beautiful triumph of the imaginative underdog over rigid bureaucracy, the artist over the office worker, maybe even of the Frenchman over Americans.