Review by Michael Jacobson

Director:  James Marsh
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Magnolia Home Entertainment
Features:  See Review
Length:  94 Minutes
Release Date:  December 9, 2008

"If I die...what a beautiful death!"

Film ***

I’m extremely acrophobic, so naturally, I felt compelled to torment myself by watching a documentary about one of the most daring high wire artists in history.   How daring?  When Frenchman Philippe Petit first saw a picture of the World Trade Center in a magazine, he knew what he had to do.  It didn’t matter that the towers, at the time, had not been constructed yet.  In fact, that was probably for the best…his dream would take a lot of time to plan, and extreme patience and nerve to execute.

His vision was to be the first and only man to walk a wire between the towers.  He had been doing the tight rope act his entire life…and frequently on the wrong side of the law.  He walked between the spires of the Notre Dame Cathedral, and across the top of the Sydney Crossing Bridge in Australia.  Daring, but not quite the climax he had in mind for his career.

Man on Wire is a look back at how he pulled off one of the most insane daredevil acts ever conceived by modern man.  It features modern interviews with Petit and his associates, which sort of kills the suspense if you were wondering if he survived or not.  And the biggest flaw is that while executing his feat, no one seemed to think to bring a film camera to capture him in action, leaving only a handful of still shots to commemorate the event.  But still…getting inside the mind of a man who would do such a brave and stupid thing is fascinating.

Much of the film involves the intricate planning…how Petit and crew forged identification badges to get into the World Trade Center as workers.  How they moved their equipment around in the high restricted areas of the towers.  How they sometimes used the stairs even though it meant climbing well over a hundred flights to avoid security.  And how they would hide for hours at a time under tarps, perfectly still, to evade the eyes of patrolling guards.

That was just the set up.  Stringing a wire between the towers in the dark was another.  Worrying about the high velocity winds was an even greater concern;  Petit would practice on wires vigorously shaken by his teammates to simulate the extreme conditions…he kept his balance most of the time.

And then the big day…August 7th, 1974, when all of Manhattan watched as Petit made the trip across.  He stayed on the wire for an hour, walking back and forth about eight times, performing his dances and acrobatics along the way, before finally surrendering to the waiting authorities.

It’s difficult whether to categorize Man on Wire as a testament to the human spirit or a chronicle of complete and utter insanity.  I think it tries for the former…no mention is even made of the wistful fact that the Towers no longer stand.  That’s another moment in time.  This film is about Philippe Petit’s moment.

Considering the magnitude of the feat, the film comes across a bit dry and talky, but re-enactments help guide the viewer through those suspenseful days and hours leading up to the event.  The actual realizing of Petit’s dream is climactic, but almost comes across as a period instead of an exclamation point. 

For a brief moment, Philippe Petit was one of the most famous people in the world.  But if you ask me, there’s got to be an easier way to earn your fifteen minutes.

NOTE:  The film is rated PG-13 for "some sexuality, nudity and drug use".  Can you say complete gratuitous and unnecessary?

Video **

Though the box doesn’t say anamorphic, I’m pleased to inform you that the transfer is in fact enhanced for wide screen televisions.  It’s a decent transfer, mixing old and new footage, but nothing particularly demanding is called for or presented here.

Audio **

There is a 5.1 track, but don’t look for much use of the surrounds or subwoofer as this is a pretty straightforward documentary.  Spoken words are clean and clear, and subtitles appear for those participants not speaking English.

Features **

There is a short video of Petit’s crossing of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, an extra interview with him, and an animated short film of his Tower walk that is done like a children’s story.


Man on Wire is an intriguing if somewhat matter-of-fact approach to a modern pop cultural event, one that defied death and the law, and can never be repeated.  Philippe Petit did the impossible and lived to tell the tale…sometimes, that’s all the story you need.

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