Philippe Petit, in 'Man on Wire'

Dir. James Marsh
(PG-13) ★ ★ ★ ½

It is rare that I am as quickly absorbed by a film as I was during the opening minutes of Man on Wire. Using interviews and black-and-white re-enactments, director James Marsh recounts the fateful morning in 1974 when Philippe Petit and his accomplices made their way to the World Trade Center, where he would walk between the towers along a high wire. According to the friends who helped him, part of the appeal for Petit was getting away with it, like in the caper films he watched to psych himself up. It is appropriate, then, that Marsh makes it come alive like Ocean’s Eleven; after all, the real satisfaction of a caper film comes not from the money but from the act of pulling it off.

Petit is presented by the film as a genius, an artist, a crackpot, and a kook. He has the imagination of a child, and sometimes the maturity of same. But he is a man of indefatigable passion, and his charisma pulls you in like a gravitational field. He is single-minded in his pursuit, and oh what a pursuit!

Marsh does not simply tell the story of Petit’s high-wire act. He evokes the man himself, with playful treatments even of his talking heads: Petit shown impishly peeking through a curtain as he explains how he evaded a guard around a wide column; dramatic, spotlit shots of his co-conspirators, some of whom get nicknames like “Inside Man” or “the Australian” — we half expect others to be introduced as “Joey the Hammer” or “Pretty Boy Malloy.” Self-important? Just the opposite. Marsh’s grandiose style is tongue-in-cheek; these men are harmless eccentrics only playing at being crooks.

The best parts of the film are the re-enactments, which suggest that Marsh in a previous life might have been a great silent film director. I was delighted by these images — of a lantern pulsing on and off, of two men sneaking by a guard with their giant spools of wire, of a nude Philippe searching in the dark for an arrow shot from the opposite tower. They’re timeless and beautiful; it’s as if we’re viewing these events in a dream.

The period footage is nearly as good. We see Petit performing his death-defying acts at the Harbor Bridge in Sydney, Australia, and at Notre Dame in Paris. From a distance you can scarcely see the wires at all, only the man, floating in mid-air. In 2008, a French daredevil, Alain Robert, climbed the New York Times building in Manhattan; what a tool, I thought. Another man, New Yorker Renaldo Clarke, attempted the same stunt only hours later — a wannabe tool. Robert’s reason was to protest global warming. Clarke was protesting malaria. The officers who arrested them I suppose were protesting ineffectual protests on the sides of buildings. What distinguishes Petit is that he had no statement to make. He was following his bliss, performing feats for their own sake, and we are swept up in his passion. There is a moment where Annie Allix, Petit’s then-girlfriend, describes the feeling of seeing him suspended in the sky between the towers; she is overcome with emotion, and so are we.

The film’s narrative is slightly tangled, cutting back and forth between the event and its planning. As a result, the momentum ebbs and flows, but what flows! The DVD includes The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, a ten-minute animated short that is equally touching. I think both films have the right idea; a conventional biopic or straight-ahead documentary would have flattened this material. It may not be possible to quite understand Philippe Petit, but to even come close, you have to join him up in the clouds.