Review: Man on Wire

Philippe Petit is the kind of guy who'd be great to invite to your dinner party. Once, anyway. For he's got quite an entertaining story to tell about the time he managed to sneak to the top of the Twin Towers, rig a wire between the two buildings, and walk across. It's a feat no one else has done or will ever be able to do again. How do you beat that in polite dinner conversation? You don't, unless perhaps you can say, "I walked on the moon."

Man on Wire is a documentary film about how Philippe pulled off this amazing feat. It uses interviews of the people involved interspersed with skillfully blended archival footage and reenactments.

Perhaps it was just a matter of my expectations being set too high going in (since the film has already won several awards and is nominated for an Academy Award) but I found myself a bit disappointed by this movie. (I also have a problem with contrarily wanting to go against the majority sometimes, and so the Rotten Tomatoes 100% fresh rating for this film makes me a little cranky.)

The movie sets itself up as a heist film: we have the forming of an outrageous plan, a diverse gang coming together, the gathering of information, the wacky caper. So where does it fall short?

First, there is a lack of suspense. We know Philippe will do his walk, because we've already seen pictures of him on the wire. The moments of worry about getting caught seemed drawn out and exaggerated for effect. The dizzying heights were genuinely frightening, but again, Philippe is being interviewed, so we know he made it safely back down. Sure, you can probably assume in any heist film that the caper will occur, but the best of the genre usually have some great plot twists, and those were sadly lacking here.

There were some fun moments in the planning that were very Catch Me If You Can, like watching Philippe and his friends pose as journalists trying to get an architectural story while really gathering data on how to make the walk happen. The general trusting nature of people and lack of a tendency to question the reality presented helped Phillipe and his crew get their information and get into the buildings undetected. (That was actually a little unsettling to watch in view of the security concerns involved with the World Trade Center.)

One technical aspect of the stunt (which I had seen alluded to as being so incredible that no one wanted to spoil it) didn't really seem that earth-shatteringly brilliant, and didn't seem like that big a secret, anyway, since early talk in the film about the team's equipment (and even the trailer on the film's website) gives it away. But I will let you reach your own conclusions on this and not reveal the details here.

You might wonder, how did Philippe's obsession get started, what drives him? He explains that he always loved to climb, but he doesn't like trying to answer why. It seems that there is a rebellious streak in this dreamer, that he takes a romantic view of committing an artful crime. What he does is against the law, he knows he will get caught, but that's all part of the thrill. Philippe's passion (obsession) is something to see.

Also interesting is what is left out of the movie. No mention is made of 9/11, which is probably a smart choice, as well as a refreshing one. A man walking on a wire between the two buildings is a much better mental picture to carry around than the terrible images of the WTC attack. And I think that's part of why the movie has been so well received, that it focuses only on this beautiful moment involving the Twin Towers. But this deliberate choice of tone also means that some other negative things are only hinted at, like the impact this event and its aftermath had on some of Philippe's closest relationships. I would like to have seen that explored more.

I don't think Man on Wire is a bad movie, but I also don't think it's as great as most everyone else seems to feel it is. I think it's a slightly forced, selective look at a story meant to play on people's emotions about the Twin Towers. There's not quite enough here to make a great heist film, just like Philippe's illegal acts don't really make him a dangerous criminal. The scenes of wire-walking were breathtakingly awesome. But when they were done, I couldn't help but feel a little bit cheated. Maybe that's inevitable; from the unbeatable heights of that moment, where can you go but down?

3/5 wings

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