It’s been an outstanding past year’s for documentaries, with Taxi To The Dark Side, In The Shadow Of The Moon, My Kid Could Paint That and others demonstrating that this once-forsaken film genre is in rude health. Put it down to the slow death of serious news, the rise of celebrity culture spawning a craving for intellectual fulfilment beyond narrative cinema, and the hi-def democratisation of moviemaking. And to that burgeoning roster of compelling docs you can add Man On Wire, the extraordinary story of Frenchman Philippe Petit, who strung a steel cable between the Twin Towers in August 1974 and danced across the wire for 47 minutes before being arrested.
No radical methods at play here: back on familiar turf after the narrative detour of The King, documentarian James Marsh’s retelling of “the artistic crime of the 20th Century” sticks to the straight and narrow, splicing talking heads with black-and-white reconstructions. But Man On Wire does have a dazzling trump card: Petit and his accomplices were canny enough to realise that, if they pulled off “le coup”, their tale would be told. So they shot hours of footage leading up to the spectacular event, capturing planning-stage clashes and Petit practicing relentlessly in his back garden as the others took turns trying to shake him off the wire to prepare him for gusty wind conditions at the top of the world’s then-tallest buildings.
Fortunate, too, that at the film’s heart sits Petit, an exuberant dreamer who speaks with a rich, passionate Gallic flair that casts a sheen of genius on his sectionable ambitions. Reliving how he became “engulfed by the monster”, Petit is a hard act to beat. Complementing his lofty chatter are equally gripping testimonials from his conspirators: then-lover Annie, oldest friend Jean-Louis and WTC inside man Barry. Set predominantly to Michael Nyman’s melodic arrangements, the candid recollections reveal a raft of lawbreaking and growing antagonism.
There are lashings of humour in both the retelling and the re-enactments. At one point, Petit and a fellow plotter are forced to hide under a tarpaulin for hours; Marsh returning to their immobile, camel-like outline again and again, like he’s discovered a pair of ETs. In the end, Petit accomplishes his stunning, audacious feat, and delivers an emotional climax that rivals the weepiest Hollywood tearjerker, without the need for manipulation beyond its own players’ genuine awe (and, of course, the feat’s unrepeatability post-9/11). Marsh’s film is an achievement in itself, beautifully constructed and carried off; and that’s only fitting when his subject epitomises the soul-lifting power of that perpetual human hunger to do the impossible.