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

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
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.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before