The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

In Praise of Documentaries: Man on Wire

Written by: Russell Davidson, CC2K Sports Editor

ImageUs old-timers vaguely remember the time, when in August of 1974, this guy walked across the divide of the two World Trade Center towers on a tight-rope. An amazing feat, to be sure. Now we’ve got the back story, and Wow, is it compelling, thrilling, life-juicing. Hop on!



Philippe Petit was this Frenchman, part circus act, part street performer, part nut case. As a young man, he read about the proposed construction of the Towers, and felt as if “they were being built for me.” It would be ten years before they were actually constructed, a ten years Petit filled in by walking a tightrope between the spires of Notre Dame Cathedral, then the Sydney Harbor Bridge, all this time him eyeballing the WTC. When it came time to try and see if the WTC walk could actually be done, they researched it, Petit and his pals, before deciding it was “impossible.” Then, they said, ok, it’s impossible, “so how do we figure it?” Nothing was going to stop Petit.

As to how they pulled it off, well, the film does a tremendous job, through interviews, re-enactments, still photos, etc., of showing how crazed and determined these guys were. Director James Marsh seamlessly leads us through, showing just how badly Petit wanted to do it, and just how badly his co-conspirators wanted to make sure he didn’t end up splattered on the pavement. The plan and execution are right out of a bank-heist movie, with fake ID’s, construction workers’ costumes, tense moments, unexpected things going wrong, unexpected things going right, all in the name of stringing a wire between two skyscrapers, and walking across it. They didn’t have permission, they weren’t getting paid, this was no PR stunt. This was simple will-power.

And that’s where the film really gets you. As we’ve been told since birth, “anything is possible,” and these guys prove it. It’s a triumph of human ingenuity and daring over nature, over inanimate objects. It’s a monumental event, this single individual, slowly walking across the wire, defying all notions of common sense and what can and can’t be done. As Petit says, “life is meant to be lived on the edge,” and he does it. It’s inspiring stuff. “Man on Wire” shows us what people are capable of. It asks us to dream, and to not give up on those dreams. Hell, of Petit can do THAT, then there’s nothing we can’t do. Aim high, like he did. You’ll make it.


It must be pointed out, of course, how the events of 9/11 hover over the film. To see the towers being built, to see Petit and his gang go about their mission, one is constantly reminded of what is to come. It certainly adds a gravity to the work, a sadness. What Petit has done will never happen again, obviously. But for that time, the towers stood for what was best about our country, about what engineers and builders could accomplish, just as Petit stood for the best of what it means to be human, to never give up, to triumph. Man on Wire is a truly great film. Check it out.