Thursday, 26 March 2009

'Man on Wire' review: Oscar winner astonishes, thrills

'Man on Wire' review: Oscar winner astonishes, thrills


Man on Wire: Philippe Petit prepares to step off the World Trade CenterA man balances precariously on a thin wire more than 1,300 feet above the bustling city. Pursued by the local police, he's cool under pressure, never losing focus on the task at hand. And that's a good thing, considering the slightest miscalculation could endanger his life.

The latest Hollywood thriller? Nah, just the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, an edge-of-your-seat nail-biter that rivals any big-budget movie when it comes to high-octane excitement. Man on Wire, directed by James Marsh, chronicles Frenchman Philippe Petit's attempt to walk on a wire illegally rigged between New York's twin towers, then the world's tallest buildings.

Man on Wire: Philippe Petit walks between the Twin TowersThe film details the extensive planning that went into Petit's efforts. Following six and a half years of dreaming of the towers, Petit spent eight months in New York City planning the execution of the coup. Aided by a team of friends and accomplices, Petit was faced with numerous challenges: he had to find a way to bypass the World Trade Center's security; smuggle the heavy steel cable and rigging equipment into the towers; pass the wire between the two rooftops; and anchor the wire and tension it to withstand the winds and swaying of the buildings.

Making the act even more amazing, the rigging was done by night in complete secrecy. The next morning, Petit took his first step off the building, and after nearly an hour dancing on the wire, he was arrested, taken for psychological evaluation, and briefly jailed.

Man on Wire
is documentary filmmaking at its finest, combining fascinating subject matter with amazing archival footage crafted in highly entertaining fashion. Through Marsh's fascinating interviews with Petit and the other key players, what appears at first as an exercise in daredevilry is revealed as an act of artistry.

Man on Wire: Philippe Petit talks about his amazing featPetit is a firecracker of energy, recounting his feat with considerable panache and insight. If you're afraid of heights like myself, you might discount Petit as flat-out crazy. But as Man on Wire progresses, you realize he's just looking at the world through a completely different lens, and Man on Wire's ability to bring that viewpoint into perspective is one of the film's many strengths.

You'll marvel at Man on Wire's footage of Petit in action, both in his WTC high-wire act and other similar exercises in Australia and France. Petit looks like he hasn't a care in the world, pausing halfway between buildings to sprawl out on the wire for a few minutes. Incredible.

Man on Wire: Philippe Petit starts his walkMarsh and editor Jinx Godfrey do an excellent job of structuring the film, weaving the recap of the 24-hour period leading up to the WTC attempt with background info about the main players and the extensive planning process. Like last year's superb documentary Stranded: I've Come from a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains, Man on Wire builds considerable suspense, even though you already know much of the outcome.

Man on Wire easily ranks as one of the decade's best documentaries and a worthy Best Documentary Oscar winner, and it's one of the best films of 2008, period. Petit is a magician of the highest order, and Man on Wire is an act that's essential viewing.


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