In 1974, Philippe Petit decided to do the impossible: climb up in the World Trade Center in New York and perform a high-wire walk by installing a thin thread between the two iconic towers.
Unknown to any authorities from the building, Petit enlists the help of his friends to make sure his “walk” is carefully planned—from ensuring access to the building’s rooftop to determining the necessary logistics.
This very illegal yet enthralling operation is the subject of James Marsh’s excellent Man on Wire, a documentary that won Best Documentary at the Oscars back in 2008. The film is a gripping retelling of a moment in history that shook the core of many, told through actual images and footage as well as re-enactments.
One of the most common complaints towards documentaries is the form’s techniques that favor the realistic over the cinematic. As viewers, we tend to glamorize movies by virtue of their aesthetics, from the musical score and production design, down to editing. Man on Wire, like the story it is narrating, feels like a full-on thriller disguised as a documentary.
The greatest win of this movie is its editing. The juxtaposition of real-life footage with re-enacted sequences is seamless, to the point that the movie juggles the two together without feeling forced. Even with the presence of talking heads serving as exposition and narration to the key moments of the story, the documentary still achieves a sense of immersion throughout.
Perhaps the best praise that can be given to the movie, apart from its own merits, is its comparison to The Walk: Robert Zemeckis’ full-length adaptation of the same material. By observing the two simultaneously, one will discover new strengths about Man on Wire. There’s just something magical to this documentary, something that cannot be replicated by the over-the-top, flashy glares of the latter. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which starred as Petit, failed to carry the charisma and bravura needed to portray such a role.
Overall, Man on Wire is an inspiring documentation of a man who is willing to risk all for the thrill of it. The film remains unmatched by the many documentaries that came after, in terms of being equally frenetic and daring.