Man on Wire, 12A

Philippe Petit wire-walked into history in 1974, revealing the nerve of a bank robber and the soul of a poet

In August 1974, French tightrope walker Philippe Petit rigged a cable between the two towers of the World Trade Center and walked across it, more than 1,300ft above ground. To be precise, Petit made the crossing eight times in 45 minutes, and might have carried on (or fallen) if the New York police hadn't threatened to haul him off by helicopter.

Much of the pleasure of James Marsh's extraordinary documentary Man on Wire lies in hearing the story from Petit himself, as flamboyant a raconteur as he is an acrobat. The youthful Petit of the early Seventies, seen in photos and archive footage, is an elfin, wiry, other-worldly figure; today, he's just as elfin if rather more leathery. Petit clearly relishes his own myth, as great charlatans usually do: except that documentary evidence proves he's no charlatan, but a true marvel. We see Petit's great feats – photos of his walks at the WTC and Notre Dame cathedral, film of him on Sydney Harbour Bridge – but he makes them even more breathtaking through his very Gallic love of paradox. Telling of his first recce at the WTC, he recalls his immediate response: "Impossible. So now let's go to work."

Petit has a touch of the poet. A favourite word is "beautiful"–- as in, "If I die, what a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion." There's a touch of Arsène Wenger in his gently philosophical bent: he recalls driving through Manhattan for the first time and marvelling at the horizontalité.(Surely he means verticalité.)

Petit psyched himself up for his feat – "le coup", as he calls it – by watching bank robbery movies on TV. Accordingly, British director Marsh couches his recreation of Petit's great day in the style of a Seventies Hollywood heist movie. Black and white footage re-enacts the surreptitious ascent of the towers by Petit and his crew, some of them in loud sports jackets and afros, as captions ("11pm, August 6") crank up the tension.

But the real grist of the film comes from the archive material, and the present-day interviews with Petit and conspirators. By its nature, Man on Wire gets you thinking about human limits and motivation. At one point Petit says of his wire-walking, "One half-millimetre of mistake, one quarter-second of inattention, and you lose your life" – but that precision marks not just the walk itself, but the meticulous preparation. You suspect that for Petit, the ecstasy of the stunt is not just in the death-defying 45 minutes, but in the months of studying architectural plans, building replicas of the WTC roof, posing as a journalist to quiz construction workers.

It also becomes clear that Petit's feat was also the achievement of his team, whose names have not passed into history. Man on Wire casts an overdue spotlight on the accomplices who also took extraordinary risks to make the event happen – the foremost risk being that they would end up jointly responsible for Petit's death. As we watch his old friends reminisce today, what becomes apparent is their absolute devotion to Petit at the time: his charismatic sway over them resembles a cult leader's.

Two of the team are moved to tears recalling the WTC walk. One of them is Annie Allix, Petit's former girlfriend, who remembers her awe of him; in a heartstopping archive photo, we see her transfixed with terror, or rapture, as she gazes up at her boyfriend in the sky. With poignant resignation, Allix recognises that in achieving his feat, Petit crossed over into the realm of celebrity and left his friends behind. Instead of running into her arms on returning to earth, Petit – as he recalls with self-congratulatory impishness - decamped with an admirer. Of another aide, Jean-François Heckel, Petit casually remarks that he followed unquestioningly: in this instant we sense that in every prodigy, there's also a monster. Heckel's reward for the twin towers coup was to be unceremoniously expelled from the United States, whereas Petit received a lifetime pass to the WTC observation deck.

A lot of good that was to him, you can't help thinking. Of course, that's what makes the film so resonant – all the more so because it's a matter that the film never raises explicitly. Against all odds, Petit is still with us today, whereas it's the twin towers that have plummeted. Your heart stops, early in the film, at an archive shot of a vast pit in Lower Manhattan. But it's a different Ground Zero – the building site on which the Center was about to rise. Petit was the twin towers' great celebrant, and their first conqueror, long before al-Qa'ida. And somehow, now the towers are gone, you can't help thinking of Petit as an oddly ghost-like figure himself.

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness