To call Man on Wire a great film would be like calling New York a big city. It’s the only film on Rotten Tomatoes (review aggregating site) to receive 100 percent positive reviews (by contrast, Avatar has an 82 percent favorable rating). It cut a monster path through the festival circuit after it was released in 2008. And it won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2009 for British filmmaker James Marsh. So when my friend Oksana, who had it checked out from the Seattle Public Library, offered to sub-loan it to me, my answer was easy: yes.
Synopsis: Man On Wire tells the breathtaking story of how Philippe Petit conceived, planned and executed the tight-rope crime of the century by walking on a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Evading security police, he and a small team of accomplices string a wire between the two buildings, allowing him to realize a lifelong dream.
Story Structure: The film launches a powerful story train right off the batt by attacking the story (using actors) at the point where they are about to leave their hotel and drive to WTC, which they are about to enter illegally. Tension mounts quickly as interviews with the real characters intercut with the actors recall how afraid they were, and how uncertain the outcome was. At the point where they reach the first WTC checkpoint, the story jumps back to the chronological beginning: with Petit in a dentist’s office, where he learns of the WTC buildings under construction. On the spot, he steals the paper and flees the dentist’s office. “What’s the pain in comparison to that now I have acquired my dream,” he says in an interview.
Family photos, news photos, historical footage, animation, reenactment and interviews are all used to tell the story – the only trick in the documentary storytelling book that’s NOT used is narration. And it’s not needed, because we have the characters involved telling the story much more effectively than any third-party narrator. At points where we might otherwise get tired of the history of his previous exploits and personal life, we jump back to the growing drama of getting into the building, as both teams encounter complications requiring them to evade police. Then we rejoin the historical part for awhile, and so on, until we are 2/3rd of the way through the film, at which point we finally have caught up with crew perched on the roof of the building, struggling to string the wire as one of the team members abandons them. The climax of the film, of course, is the walk itself. After that, the film has some loose ends to tie up: what happens to Petit after his arrest, and a surprise twist that was hinted at but not disclosed until the end, involving how Petit’s relationship with the other characters was transformed as a result of realizing his impossible dream.
Cinematography: The interviews are lit professionally, with dramatic but soft light, so they stand out from their background. Scenes that are historically reenacted are shot in black and white to indicate the flashback – except for one sequence in which they are perhaps the happiest moments of the story and the color indicates that – the training camp that Petit runs to rehearse. That scene shows emotional closeness of teammembers by depicting them rolling in the grass together and goofing off together.
There’s one particularly beautiful reveal shot of the Notre Dame, shot at dusk or early morning in present day, to set up his tightrope walk there. In it, the camera tracks past corner of stone to reveal the cathedral and then an someone on the crew presumably flushed a flock of pigeons which takes flight just as camera enters, for added drama. Last scene in film is of Petit in present day, walking on tight rope, and nice series of tight and medium shots allows him to conclude with his voiceover stating his view that life should be lived on a tight rope. Some of the shots look shot on crane or track.
Editing: There’s a brilliant splitscreen effect early in the film in which the left half the screen shows the WTC under construction and right half shows Philippe Pete under construction – that is – growing up. The two are thus effectively linked and we understand how significant the building is to Petite. Also allows us to zip ahead in time to opening of the building after showing historical footage of early construction. A binocular effect is placed over early scenes of the Tower in which Petit describes how he ran surveillance – and the binocular mask effect adds drama nicely. Simple animation shows how many times Petit flew back and forth between Paris and NYC. Similarly, a small circle is used over the flashback scenes to his earliest period in Paris. A fuzzy oval shape is used for the scene in which he hooks up with a groupie, perhaps to indicate the secrecy he was attempting to maintain from his girlfriend.
Sound and Music: The gorgeous soundtrack by Michael Nyman builds the tension from the very first scene with minimalist, tense orchestral music, to the final lyrical piano piece. Wanting to learn more about the composer, I headed to his website, and discovered this: To celebrate the creative power of music, film and photography you can now download a Nyman soundtrack to use on your own film for free! I downloaded it.