Early on, the documentary Man on Wire presents a familiar glimpse of the Ground Zero construction site crawling with construction equipment and workers in hard hats. Then we see a foundation being set and steel girders going skyward. Is the World Trade Center being resurrected? No, director James Marsh was actually showing footage from the early 1970s of the Twin Towers going up.
Man on Wire offers a touching tribute to the World Trade Center as a now-timeless symbol of human aspiration. Marsh accomplishes this, however, without saying a word about the towers' fate on Sept. 11. Instead, Man on Wire examines one of the most breathtaking – and positive – events in the WTC's history: Phillippe Petit's high-wire crossing between the towers on Aug. 7, 1974.
As a young Parisian street performer, Petit juggled and rode unicycles but specialized in increasingly outlandish high-wire acts such as Notre Dame Cathedral. Petit grew obsessed with the towers even before they were created, and in present-day interviews he blazes with enthusiasm like an aging Peter Pan – you can see how his multinational buddies would fall under his sway.
Man on Wire lays out Petit's preparation like a heist movie in much the same way that Petit "cased the joint" by learning all he could about the towers, and brainstorming how to string a high-wire the 200 feet between the buildings. (The solution involves a bow and arrow.) Occasionally the film gets bogged down on the planning details, and stints on the personal lives of Petit's assistants, but Man on Wire recounts a strikingly suspenseful story, especially considering the outcome is never in doubt.
The film opens with Petit and his confederates driving past WTC security, and their nervousness over their illicit activity almost evokes actual terrorists on a mission, particularly the 1993 bombing. Rather than mourn the loss of the towers, Man on Wire celebrates them without excessively glorifying Petit. His fixation on the towers and subsequent fame clearly come at the expense of his personal relationships. Still, by the film's end, Petit comes across, in a way, as the opposite of a terrorist – as a person who instills wonder in the lives of strangers. The tale of his accomplishment proves even more moving with the knowledge that the towers are now gone.