Man on Wire (Magnolia Pictures, PG-13)


Filled with excitement, oozing with charisma, and peppered with humor, Man on Wire is one of the best documentaries in recent years.

Very rarely do I see a film that enraptures me with such complicated, poetic brilliance as James Marsh’s Man on Wire. It shows how daredevil Phillippe Petit infiltrated the World Trade Center, rigged up a tight rope, and performed 110 stories in the air. To call it a documentary, or even just a film, doesn’t do it justice; Man on Wire is simply a story that needed to be told.

Marsh constructs Petit’s journey from southern France to the top of New York though home movies, newsreels, interviews and cunning recreations. He carefully balances two narratives throughout the film, teasing the audience with snippets le coup (how Petit and his crew refer to the time they snuck into the towers) and Petit’s background. It spryly jumps between the two, never seeming disjointed. The skillful recreations are deftly spliced between surprisingly good quality footage of a young Petit during the six years he took in preparation.

From the film’s first moment, Petit erupts onscreen. It’s obvious this man was born to entertain. His captivating descriptions pull no punches, as he passionately recounts the events that led to his mid-air performance between the two highest buildings in the world (at the time).

As Petit’s fervid determination brings him closer to defying death and the authorities, the film’s novelty turns into real poignancy. It’s not just a story about a man doing something dangerous, the film makes the impossible possible. It challenges the audience, like Petit challenged himself, to take chances and to, as Petit says in the film’s closing, “live life on the edge.”

Much has been written on Michel Nyman’s impressive musical contributions to the film, but it’s French minimalist Erik Satie who steals the show. As Petit spider-legs dances hundreds of feet in the air, Satie’s careful melody from “Gymnopedie No. 1,” performed by Ann Queffelec, fills the moment with a surreal, ambient beauty.

The film is as unique as Petit himself and displays a well-honed talent for storytelling. Filled with excitement, oozing with charisma and peppered with humor, Man on Wire is one of the best documentaries in recent years.

| Glen Elkins

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