Film Review: Man On Wire
I finally got around to watching Man On Wire, the James Marsh directed documentary about Philippe Petit’s legendary high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in New York. This film was an enormous critical success when it was released in 2008; It won both the Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance, won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and appeared on numerous end of the year top-ten lists. It even managed a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Seemingly everyone who has seen this movie loved it, so I was excited to see if it matched up to the hype. And my reaction? Well, I don’t mean to be a contrarian, but I was a bit underwhelmed.
The film begins with Petit recounting the day he found out about the planned construction of the Twin Towers, and his immediate and all-encompassing desire to “conquer” them. After performing several other high-profile wire-walks (including Notre Dame and the Sydney Bridge in Australia), he recruits a team to accompany him to America and make a run at the Twin Towers. The film itself is set up a heist movie, which does a nice job building the suspense. Obviously no one is going to just let Petit use the Towers as his personal playground, so the team has to sneak in dressed as workers and using fake IDs. This deception provides much of the dramatic tension in the movie, though they are clearly going to succeed in their mission.
I didn’t hate this movie, I just was a bit miffed after watching it as to why it became such a critical darling. I think part of what put me off about it was Petit himself. I found him to be an attention-clambering annoyance. Frankly, I don’t see walking on a wire as some beautiful expression of the insatiable human desire to achieve its dreams as much as I do a crazy person trying to make a few bucks and get some attention. Yeah, Petit walked on a wire and it looks really cool to see a man that high up in the air with no fear whatsoever. But I really felt like he was being dishonest about his motivations. I see this thing as a publicity stunt, not some artistic experiment.
Everyone has a movie that they hate, despite all the evidence pointing towards it being a good film. I guess Man on Wire is mine. I simply didn’t like this movie very much. I thought it was well-done, but the I just couldn’t connect with the film’s major conceit, which is that Petit was this genius who changed the world with this dazzling display of artistry and courage. I couldn’t shake my belief that he was just some cocky French guy looking to make some money. Sorry, Man on Wire fanboys.