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
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Stinson Hunter and his associates Stubbs and Grime in Channel 4 documentary The Paedophile Hunter

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Arts and Entertainment
This Banksy mural in Clacton has been removed by the council
art
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
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.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?