This film documents the six year plan and illegal performance of the 45 minute high wire walk across the yet-unfinished World Trade Center, by Philippe Petit in August 1974. It is based on Petit’s excellent book, To Reach the Clouds, published in 2002.
As a youngster, I vividly remember watching footage of that event on TV, and it had a profound impact on me, since it showed an individual man confidently standing on top of the greatest city in the world. The next morning, it took me an extra 30 minutes to deliver papers on my route, as I read the headline over and over again, before dropping off each paper.
If I were to give the film a subtitle, it would be Man at His Best.
Although Petit is flamboyant and constantly refers to artistic passion, don’t mistake this for non-thinking. The movie glorifies mind/body integration, as he places particular emphasis on the mental aspects, such as focus (look at his face when preparing for a high wire walk). Plus, there are dozens of drawings, models and designs which he and his team create and/or review during the planning of the project. All of this is done with the knowledge that he was breaking several laws and he would be arrested afterwards. (One could sometimes question Petit’s methods of getting around the law, but I believe that is a different matter.)
There is humor, drama and complementary music throughout the film, climaxing with the actual walk between the Towers.
In preparation for his New York event, Petit first chose to walk between the towers at the apex of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. One of the most symbolic scenes in Man On Wire highlights a focused and confident Petit walking gracefully in the sky above the cathedral while the clergymen inside lie face down on the floor, in submission, during the church service.
If ever there was a documentary that portrays the single tracked devotion to a concrete goal, this is it. I would go far enough to say that in August 1974 there were only a handful of people who knew or loved the World Trade Center as much as Petit.
There is one element in the book which is left out of the movie: Petit’s appeal to New York to rebuild the Twin Towers—taller and stronger, to once again tickle the clouds—and his promise to walk across them again. Unfortunately it looks like that battle is lost. The film has no reference to the Towers being destroyed. Instead, the emphasis is on its creation and magnificence.
I walked out of the theater not feeling the ground beneath me, because Petit ends the film on such an inspiring note. He states that life should be lived on the edge, with every single day as an exercise in independent thinking and action (he calls it rebellion), seeking beauty and happiness in the constant pursuit to reach for the best within us.