Man on Wire

Philippe Petit is a tightrope walker and juggler, a man of stunts and tricks. He is also a man imbued with a sense of the poetic that can be spellbinding. Man on Wire is a documentary film that traces how this impish French circus artist managed to walk across a cable strung between the twin towers of the Manhattan World Trade Centre back in 1974. It is also a disarmingly frank and moving portrait of the friends who got him there.

There is something of the divine in Petit’s nature. From the magic of his craft to the single-minded tenacity with which he turns his dreams into reality, Petit draws in disciples mesmerised by his impetuous, death-defying talents. He is a man who lives “every day as a work of art” and his ambition and audacity are extraordinary and uncompromising.

Petit’s feat is to conquer the void, to stand in empty space for the pleasure of its simplicity and to revel in this profound transcendence of psychology as well as the rules of nature. The most telling description of the event comes from file footage of a New York police officer who, delivering answers to a press conference, is clearly still enraptured by the beauty of what he witnessed.

But Petit’s ascendance comes at a cost, not to him but to his friends. In achieving his dream and rebuffing his own mortality, something snaps in his humanity. The fiction becomes reality, the artwork is completed and Petit leaves behind his friends as easily as a painter might abandon an easel.