When Phillipe Petit first began planning to walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center on a cable – planning that commenced even before construction had begun – he could have had no idea that the end result might eventually be pressed into service as one of many eulogies for those doomed buildings and the people who died in them on September 11, 2001.
Though that terrible day is not explicitly mentioned in the 2008 movie documenting Petit’s daring feat, Man on Wire, the viewer cannot help but be reminded of it, whether by archival footage of the initial assembly of the buildings’ distinctive exoskeleton-like trusses – the remains of which would stand twisted and scorched above the rubble piles – or by a chilling photograph, taken during a reconnaissance mission, that frames not only Petit but the top of one tower and a plane pointed toward it. As a result, the movie has a melancholy air that would otherwise not be present in what is, on its own terms, simply a meditation on the indomitability of the human instinct for adventure, exploration, and creativity. But the melancholy is the smaller part, and this is by no means a sad movie.
If all I’d known about Man on Wire were the simple facts of its subject matter, I probably wouldn’t have rented it. Petit’s stunt is easy to mock, especially for those of us who have gradually gotten our guard up against the weak arguments of so many second-rate “performance artists” and other provocateurs concerning the alleged value of transgression for its own sake. But the movie made enough critics’ top-10 lists, and the previews I saw expressed such an infectious enthusiasm for the story, that I eventually decided I wanted to see it for myself.
I’m glad I did, even if Petit’s stunt – indeed, Petit himself – remain easy to mock, even after viewing. The man, who is given to silly statements such as how, if he had died in the course of his wirewalk, it would have been “a beautiful death,” exudes pretension and self-satisfaction (the French accent doesn’t help), and of course he wasn’t the only one he was putting at risk. The process of stringing 200 feet of cable between the buildings, while hiding from guards, could easily have resulted in the fall of one of his helpers. And of course a misstep by Petit himself could have resulted in his flattening an innocent pedestrian in the plaza below (though of course the odds were steeply against this.)
Still, many of these same criticisms can be leveled against the latest climbing party to attempt Mt. Everest or K2, especially since such climbers can no longer be said to be “exploring” or showing the rest of us what humans are capable of or anything, really, other than indulging themselves. At least it is possible to say that Petit was attempting something that no one had ever done before and which even today, with the photographic evidence before us – it is difficult to believe really lies within the realm of human ability.
The most affecting element of the movie is not the wire walk itself, but rather Petit’s single-minded determination to pull it off – across years and years of planning, and despite one failed attempt. In an interview segment, Petit reminisces about first reading of the World Trade Center construction plans in a magazine while he waited in a dentist’s office to be treated for a toothache. As he tells the story, he was so excited at the thought of one day wire-walking between the two towers that he tore the page out of the magazine and left before seeing the dentist, claiming that the pain of a toothache was nothing compared to the exhilaration of having found his dream. I’m suspicious of the details of the story Petit doesn’t strike me as someone who would have scruples against a little self-dramatization – but there can be no doubt that it at least accurately represents the thrill of discovering what your dream is, an experience we should all be lucky enough to have.