Since the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001, two powerful documentaries have looked at the Twin Towers through the eyes of a man faced with death. The first, Henry Singer's The Falling Man, tries to piece together the final moments of an unknown 9/11 "jumper" who was made immortal in a photograph taken by Richard Drew. He was a reluctant victim for whom death came looking. The second film is Man on Wire, the story of the marvellous high-wire walker Philippe Petit, and his nonchalance in the face of death.
Man on Wire is an amalgam of re-enactments, interviews and footage of the World Trade Center's construction and Petit and his gang in 1974 gearing up to gain access to the towers and cross a high-wire that stretches from one to the other. The pacing is flawless. The director, James Marsh, kept this reviewer on the edge of his seat, whereas Wall-E and The Dark Knight had him reaching for the matchsticks. Marsh begins with Petit's first outlandish high-wire crossings at Notre Dame Cathedral and Sydney Harbour Bridge, perfectly building up the tension to the Twin Towers project in the fashion of a heist movie.
However, Man on Wire isn't just a series of suspenseful building blocks leading up to what we all know will be a successful climax. The film operates on various levels, ranging from madcap comic caper to an emotional depiction of the way Petit's relationships with Jean-Louis Blondeau, his right-hand man, and Annie Allix, his girlfriend, suffered in the wake of the fame he gained after the New York crossing.
Marsh does an incredible job at not shoving the 9/11 attacks down our collective throats. Instead, we watch stock footage of the building of the towers as Petit describes his frustration at having to wait for their completion, his desire to climb them bursting from him in a bull-headed fit of flailing animation.
It is a testament to how inspiring and engaging this film is that the only thing one eminent US critic could find to criticise in it was the use of a piece of Michael Nyman music that had been used in an earlier film. It caused the critic so much "discomfort" that he had to leave the cinema. A shame, as the only discomfort an audience would feel watching this movie is the alarm that Petit's cohorts experienced watching him lying on his back on a wire no thicker than his spine more than 400 meters above ground on 7 August 1974.
Jay James May