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Attack the Doc: Man on Wire


Welcome to ATTACK THE DOC! A feature that explores the world of documentaries and picks out the best among the best, among the best. We'll cover everything from subcultures around the world, to economic collapse, to music and trashy hillbillies from every walk of life. So pop a squat, turn off reality and sit back and enjoy a little slice of someone else's.


MAN ON WIRE is a 2008 documentary directed by James Marsh.

In August 1974, tightrope walker, Frenchman, and all around jovial dude, Philippe Petit, took one step toward what he felt was his destiny. The World Trade Center towers stood 1,300 feet above New York City, and the thick wire connecting the buildings was strong and wound tight enough to support Petit's 135 girlish frame. The walk took Petit and his team years to prep. Diagrams were drawn. Scale models of the top of the buildings were constructed in order to figure out the best place to anchor the wire. Petit elevated a wire in his backyard the exact same distance of the two towers to practice, and his team would pull and shake the wires to mimic the wind Petit would experience that high in the air. It was a mission that Petit, already an experienced high wire walker and magician and unicyclist(!), became obsessed with while sitting in a dentist's office years before the walk, pouring over a magazine. Inside the magazine was an article with an architecture's rendetion of two great skyscapers that were to be built in New York City and become the highest buildings in the world. Petit felt the towers were made for him to walk. He tore the image from the magazine and started preparing his mission, or what people in the community call, "You're gonna f*cking do what?!"

"I think I see my Dad."

MAN ON WIRE has the suspense of a heist movie and the protagonist of a Wes Anderson movie in Philippe Petit. The guy is at both times charasmatic and an ass, arrogant and humbled by the nature of his work. There are times in the preparations phase where he despairs and admits that the walk can't be done, but once the dude takes the first couple of steps on the wire, he confidently smiles. In other interviews, Petit claims that he had no fear, that he couldn't fall. It was destiny. Do your thang then, kid. In terms of the heist mood the documentary gives off, Petit and his team had to forge IDs, create fake companies with fake invoices, and sneak two separate teams up in each tower. While prepping the south tower where Petit began his walk, he and a cohort hide underneath tarp for a couple hours when a cop inspects the vacant top floors and decides to have a smoke break. During their prep, the team hits a bump in the road when it comes to how they're getting the wire from one tower to the other. A radio controlled plane is discussed, tying it to a soccer ball and kicking it across is also offered up, when finally the team decides on the ol' bow and arrow method. A fishing line is tied to the arrow, only Petit loses sight where the arrow lands. He strips nude hoping some part of his body feels the line. Or maybe he just wanted to show Manhattan his balls.

"So a guy walking a highwire wears bell bottoms. Big deal."

What makes MAN ON WIRE really work is the archival footage, the reeanctments and the editing. Typically, "reeanctment" wouldn't be a strong point for a documentary, but it's the way the scenes are shot (black and white, dark, shadowy) that adds to the whole "heist/suspense" angle. The scenes are cut between Petit's story: his prior walks between the Notre Dame de Paris towers and the Sydney Harbour Bridge and all of the World Trade Center preparations. Considering these walks and the prep done were in the 1970s, the fact that there's film footage of this makes it all the more authentic and amazing. Not to say that 8mm cameras weren't readily available in the early 70s, but it's cool that one of Petite's crew (likely the father of someone who records a concert on their phone) had the wherewithal to put all this on film. As far as the walk itself, it's a Goddamn travesty that it wasn't shot on video. There's video of the team prepping on the roof, but most of what we have are a shitload of still images, which doesn't detract from the amazing feat, but only makes you wish footage was shot.

"Oh hi, New York City. How's my ass look from down there?"

MAN ON WIRE is as solid a documentary as you're going to get. It's got everything. Footage of the Towers being built, suspense, humor, colorful characters, and French people. Director James Marsh rolls out such a great tale in an almost dream like quality with a beautiful classical soundtrack that pulls the viewer into the story from the first frame.

"Dude, I'm so high up I'm in black and white, bitch!"

Watch MAN ON WIRE on Amazon here!!!

Extra Tidbit: Petit crossed the World Trade Center towers eight times, sat on the wire, knelt on the wire and saluted, lied down on the wire and watched a seagull fly over him. The title of the film comes from Petit's police report.



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