With the Academy Awards closing in, Squidhelmet has been trying to catch up on some of the nominees. Since there’s plenty of general movie reviews out there for Man on Wire, I’ll skip the basic plot summary and focus on the three things that struck me as unique about this documentary:
1. We’re just not gonna go there.
The World Trade Center has become a highly charged symbol. It’s increasingly common for television and movies to show the smoking towers underscored with somber music to evoke an emotional response. When this is done without context, for political purpose, or as part of bad entertainment, it can be manipulative or even offensive.
Man on Wire tells the story of a tightrope walker who broke into the World Trade Center and hatched an elaborate plot to traverse the span between the two towers. For Philippe Petit, the towers represented the apex of his artistic ambitions. As a child, he saw a picture of the projected tower design in a magazine and scratched a thin line between them with a pencil. Director James Marsh chooses to cast the towers only in the light of Philippe’s innocent dreams, and to me this represents the highest degree of good taste.
By avoiding any nostalgia or sentimentality, Man on Wire allows us to view the towers as symbols of hope, achievement, and undauntable spirit, which is incredibly refreshing. Like a funny anecdote told at a funeral service, where you celebrate life rather than dote on death.
2. This documentary is made up of fake documents!
While reenactments have become a common tool in documentaries, Man on Wire playfully integrates new footage and old in a way that is mesmerizing. While some is original document, most is new footage composited in such a way that it captures that grainy Super-8 home movie feel. The young actors so resemble their real-life counterparts that it’s near impossible not to believe the reenacted footage is real.
The footage frequently dips into fantasy, but somehow maintains its documentary quality. For instance, in flashback Petit often appears idealized, riding a unicycle determinedly through the streets of Paris wearing a Top Hat and mime black. While clearly an abstracted vision of the man, somehow these flourishes never make the film feel inauthentic.
While this seamless juxtaposition of document and forgery is an amazing evolutionary step for the documentary genre, it definitely sets off the Squidhelmet conspiracy theory radar. With Benjamin Button style face-replacements and reenacted documentary footage added to the arsenal of Hollywood tricks, how long before we start to see ‘newly discovered’ footage from the moon landing or JFK assassination? Remain vigilant Squidcadets!
3. An unexpectedly bittersweet love story.
This dips into spoiler territory, so avert your eyes if you’re sensitive to such things (I know I am). The movie contains an incredible plot twist right after the climactic moment. As the film opens, we are introduced to Annie, a beautiful young girl who is pursued by the wire-walking showman, and soon becomes his muse. Throughout the planning of Petit’s various guerrilla tightrope heists (Notre Dame Cathedral, Sydney Harbor Bridge) Annie remains a loyal supporter and dedicated companion to Petit. She faithfully endures his ‘tortured artist’ angst and is even barred from joining him in New York City until he becomes desperately depressed about the shambled state of his twin towers plan.
The unexpected moment comes right after Petit has successfully pulled off the caper, and gets arrested. His fame in New York skyrockets, and as soon as he is released from jail, he is swept up in a whirlwind of fame. Instead of rejoining his accomplices and girlfriend, he disappears for a two-day rendezvous with an adoring fan that pounces on him in front of the court house.
At this moment you expect Philippe to be cracking champagne with his fellow conspirators, but instead he dives headfirst into rock star narcissism and completely betrays his longtime girlfriend. What’s interesting about it is that Philippe and Annie both refer to it as a beautiful way to have ended the relationship. Their love had been that of a genius and his adoring fan rather than two equals. And somehow when his dreams had been fulfilled, they both had nothing left. While it’s tempting to moralize it and be repulsed by his action, it’s an intriguing twist that somehow avoids repugnancy by the distance the participants have from the memory, and their mutual acceptance of a young love’s bittersweet end.
In case it’s not clear from the above review, Squidhelmet gives Man on Wire two thumbs up! Although it will probably win the Academy Award because it is the most-hyped documentary, it is more than deserving!
Bar Trivia: What’s an eleven-letter synonym for tightrope walking?