Highly Strung

‘Breathtaking’ is a rather over used word in film criticism; a handy catch-all phrase that describes everything from a starlet’s liquid eyes to pyrotechnic stuntwork or pretty landscape photography. It is only rarely employed to express the actual sensation of gasping in a cinema seat, but that’s what happens in James Marsh’s dizzying documentary Man On Wire, about a day in 1974 when a daredevil Frenchman strung a high-wire across the gap between New York’s Twin Towers and walked out into the ether.

A circus performer from a young age, the pixie-like Philippe Petit had already attracted the world’s attention by traversing the towers of Notre Dame cathedral and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but as he tells it himself in a series of interviews, from the moment he saw an architect’s drawing of the World Trade Centre in a newspaper, he knew would have to try to cross it. From that half-cracked idea, Petit and his team of accomplices spent eight months planning the execution of what they called their ‘coup’ in painstaking detail. Like a team of bank robbers preparing a heist, they would have to find a way to gain access to the top of the half-finished towers, carry the 200 foot cable into position, secure it against the high winds at 1350 feet and do it all without getting caught.

Structured like a thriller, Marsh (who previously directed the oddball Wisconsin Death Trip and the equally edgy drama The King) uses new interviews, archive footage and seamless reconstructions to bring us inside Petit’s unique world of risk and danger, brilliantly evoking a time and place and making the audience - even those unaffected by acrophobia - feel like part of the adventure.

Petit, who was only 24 when he completed the walk, makes for an engaging interview subject; still driven by his unique artistic vision and an endless supply of adrenaline. His accomplices, including his then girlfriend, exasperated best friend and the inside man, a thrill-seeking American lawyer, each give their chronological version of the event, recalling the constant sense of danger but also the simple joy involved in pulling off a high-concept prank. The result is an engaging and compelling documentary that dances on the line between art and obsession, the knee-trembling images beautifully matched to Michael Nyman’s evocative score.

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