An essay by Naomi Silver-Vézina
For Prof. Neil Hartlen’s Writing about Film BXE class
Sky’s the Limit
“It’s impossible, that’s sure. So let’s start working.”
– Philippe Petit
In 1974, free-spirited acrobat Philippe Petit set out to walk on a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Centre. Thirty-four years later, James Marsh made him the centre of his documentary Man on Wire, which recounts what some would call the “artistic crime of the century”. Using Philippe Petit to illustrate his point, Marsh argues that one should follow one’s dreams, even if this requires a deviation from the norm. The documentary effectively sells his adamant belief that dreams ought to be met with perseverance and ambition, rather than skepticism, allowing the audience to live their pipe dreams through Philippe Petit’s feat and painting a blissful picture of pre-9/11 New York.
Through his documentary, James Marsh allows the audience to experience Philippe Petit’s exploit and relate it to their own abandoned ambitions. Most people have, at one point or another in their lives, had wild daydreams of seemingly impossible proportions. What makes the film’s protagonist different from these people is that he followed his desire, no matter how dangerous or unrealistic it might have seemed. Seeing someone so uninhibited succeed in living his unlikely aspiration is cathartic to people who have given up on their plans, as well as those whose plans have given up on them. Witnessing the exploit from its preparation to its awe-inspiring execution not only brings admiration, but creates pathos: this is not the feat of a demi-god, but the careful plan of a free-spirited man. Philippe Petit, despite his infinite energy and child-like whimsy, is first and foremost a man with dreams. Marsh is able to take members of the audience on the journey with Philippe, letting them taste the bliss of unbridled persistence. In order to do so, Marsh uses various techniques: First off, the adventure is handed to the audience in the form of re-enactments, home videos and archival footage, allowing them to see the feat for themselves. These images help to bring the story to life. The re-creations are set apart from other footage by their desaturated, hazy look, and the dream-like quality of the images is similar to the distortion of time on a memory. At times, they are indistinguishable from the videos shot by Philippe’s friends, causing the audience to question the authenticity of some images before realizing how little it matters. The film recounts an event that occurred over thirty years prior to its release, but it nevertheless feels fresh and dynamic thanks to the filmmaker’s gorgeous footage, as well as Philippe’s energy level. Although it is known from the very beginning that Philippe Petit succeeds, the footage of him walking from one tower to another, suspended midair above the bustling metropolis, is enough to provoke heart palpitations and thrills. The build-up to the exploit takes up the majority of the film, but the pay-off is exhilarating.
Although Marsh is convincing in his contention that dreams ought not to be abandoned, his point of view is obviously slanted in favour of Philippe. He does not claim objectivity, nor does he attempt to conceal his admiration of Philippe. This translates as an excessively permissive portrait of the tightrope walker and his feat. To begin with, the issue of safety is addressed, but only to make the exploit more impressive: not even the fear of death can keep Philippe from following his dream. The very real risk of falling threatens Philippe, obviously, but also those on the ground. However, the danger of harming others is hardly addressed by anyone other than the people who try to restrain Philippe, such as police officers. In addition, law-enforcement agents, news anchors and anyone who try to stop Philippe are portrayed with mockery. The juxtaposition of Philippe’s incredible walk and the news reports depicts authority figures as humourless and impervious to his charisma. In archival footage of a press conference, Sgt. Charles Daniels, though impressed by Philippe’s mid-air calisthenics (“I personally figured I was watching something that somebody else would never see again in the world. Thought it was once in a lifetime.”), is not amused by the provocation, nor by having to resort to threats in order to get him to set foot on solid ground. Philippe’s recklessness is emotional in addition to physical, and this is something else the documentary chooses to ignore. With a cheeky grin, Philippe recounts his affair with an American admirer. Annie, his girlfriend of the time, excuses his behaviour, explaining that, “in Philippe’s mind, many things were changing” due to his newfound fame. The passage of time must have softened feelings of bitterness, and it is unlikely that she took it quite so well at first. Another person who felt the impact of Philippe’s ambition is his friend Jean-François, who was deported from the United States as a result of the hijinks. Of course, he is not entirely innocent in the matter, as he willingly participated in the planning and execution of the crossing, knowing from the beginning that it would be illegal. But Philippe is never shown expressing any guilt or regret whatsoever, and neither are Annie or Jean-François. Philippe is the film’s hero, and thus Marsh takes on his attitude of whimsy and carelessness. Consequently, the film does not dwell on the sometimes destructive effects of Philippe’s behaviour. While the film remains convincing, its credibility is diminished by its director’s idolization of his star.
The Twin Towers, which were later to be associated with terrorism and tragedy, are portrayed as what they were originally meant to be: ambitious representations of the American dream. To the film and to Philippe, this is exactly what they are. But more than anything, Philippe identifies with the towers. Having traveled to New York to concretize his ambition, they are quite literally his American dream, and he uses buildings of then-unparalleled height to break his own record. The film contains a sequence showing, in split screen, both the early stages of the construction and early photographs of Philippe. The parallels represent the growth and development of two entities whose fates will inevitably intertwine. Any negative connotation to the towers is ignored, and the destruction of the skyscrapers twenty-three years after the walk is omitted. Although it is an odd, and some would argue insensitive, choice, the absence of references to the attacks maintains the light, whimsical and somewhat naïve tone of the film. Politics are kept out of the movie entirely, allowing it to tell the story of the dream of one man rather than the sorrow of many. In terms of kairos, Man on Wire is peculiar: it was released seven years after the events of 9/11. However, it does not mention the event, and nothing specifically prompted the making of a film with the World Trade Centre as a central element at that specific moment. Still, without having to be alluded to, the events of 9/11 are still fresh in people’s memories. Depicted as an “artistic crime”, Philippe’s misconduct atop the high-rises is certainly less condemnable when one remembers the much more tragic crimes to which they would be subjected in 2001. Suspended midair between the two buildings in blissful ignorance of what would eventually occur, Philippe is not aware that he will outlive the building, and flies freely between the two structures. Watching him, the audience cannot help but feel envious of his obliviousness.
More so than about tightrope walking, Man on Wire is a tale of zealous perseverance and belief in one’s dreams. Philippe Petit is not just a man, but also a symbol: he is the embodiment of what could have been if people weren’t hindered by doubts and fears. Philippe, by contrast, walks free of worry, free of inhibitions. Through various techniques, Marsh effectively portrays the idea that the sky really is the limit.
Marsh, James, dir. Man on Wire. 2008. Archambault, 2008. DVD.