Combustible Celluloid
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With: Philippe Petit, Annie Allix, Jean-Louis Blondeau, Ardis Campbell, David Demato, David Forman, David Roland Frank, Barry Greenhouse, Aaron Haskell, Jean François Heckel, Paul McGill, Jim Moore, Alan Welner
Written by: n/a
Directed by: James Marsh
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexuality and nudity, and drug references
Language: English, French with English subtitles
Running Time: 94
Date: 01/22/2008

Man on Wire (2008)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Against the Rope

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

James Marsh's documentary Man on Wire gets points simply for not being about famine, floods, war, debt or the complete and utter downfall of society as we know it. On top of that, it's a great deal of fun, playing not unlike a crafty caper film with loads of spine-tingling suspense.

The film tells the story of French tightrope walker Philippe Petit, who in 1974 walked on a wire stretched between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Of course, this was illegal -- he couldn't get permits -- so he and a team of helpers had to sneak into the towers with all their equipment and pull off the stunt unnoticed before the authorities were called in.

Marsh, who also directed the terrific documentary Wisconsin Death Trip (1999) as well as the fiction film The King (2005), uses talking heads, new re-creation footage, vintage footage shot by Petit and his crew, and many beautiful photographs.

The film begins with an event halfway through the story and keeps returning to it as a way of manipulating the suspense, pulling it taught like a... well, like a tightwire. Petit and his assistant were nearly discovered by a security guard, so they hid under a tarp and found themselves stuck for perhaps hours, waiting for the guard to depart. This event notwithstanding, Marsh finds drama in nearly every step of the process; I kept wondering how they would actually string a wire across the vast, dizzying, empty space.

A consummate performer even when speaking on camera, Petit reminded me of Malcolm McDowell, with a rebellious, movie-star quality. Afterward, Petit marvels at the American reporters and their questions: "why?" "There is no why!" he says.

A terrific film no matter how you string it, Man on Wire also has a bittersweet tone with all that footage of the magnificent towers, which officially opened in 1973 and stood tall until 9/11/2001. The film won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

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