A group of foreigners sneaks into the World Trade Center. Some are dressed in suits, others disguised as construction workers. They’ve got some bulky equipment with them—ominous and ambiguous—and they bring it to the top of the building, evading the security guards’ halfhearted glances along the way. At night, the men enact their subversive scheme, and in the morning, their act shocks the entire world.
James Marsh’s documentary Man on Wire chronicles a moment when such a notion did not evoke terror alerts and worst-case scenarios: more specifically, Aug. 7, 1974, when a 24-year-old Frenchman named Philippe Petit stepped onto a cable rigged between New York’s Twin Towers and proceeded to walk back and forth, literally suspended in midair, only pausing to lie down for a bit of a rest—1,368 feet above the ground. Dangerous and illegal, the infamous high-wire walk lasted only 45 minutes, but when it was over, it was instantly canonized as one of the 20th century’s great acts of beauty.
Petit first had the idea years earlier, not long after he’d taken up the high wire. As a naive young man in France, he says, “I was dreaming of putting my wire in incredible places, and it was with that state of mind that I saw this newspaper article that had a picture of the model of the towers, and it was very obvious for me to fall in love.” Indeed, at its core, Man on Wire is a love story chronicling an artist’s obsession with aesthetic purity. In the film, we see a postcard of the World Trade Center, which Philippe sends back to France. Before dropping it in the mailbox, he adds a small line connecting the tops of the towers: This brash simplicity is Petit’s mantra, and he seeks to enact the impossible with a kind of perfect grace.
Immediately after completing his walk, the symbolically, ethereally minded Petit confronted some good-old-fashioned American materialism. Instead of soliciting questions about beauty and art, “it was a slap in the face when I met the press and received their questions about how heavy it was and how much did it cost.” But while initially shocking (“I was far from my poetic upbringing”), the focus on the banal didn’t leave a lasting impression. After refusing to answer, “Why did you do it?” over and over again, Petit says that Americans quickly “understood that I was a mysterious, mischievous person, and they understood that I was just a poet of the high wire.”