On August 7, 1974, Philippe Petit and a small band of associates rigged a tightrope cable between the twin towers of the still-under-construction World Trade Center; then Petit spent 45 minutes walking back and forth in mid-air, before the police threatened to pluck him off with a helicopter. James Marsh's documentary Man On Wire offers a meticulously detailed look back at the event, reconstructed via talking-head interviews, archival footage, and somewhat corny re-enactments. Marsh adds a repetitive, dreamy Michael Nyman score, giving Man On Wire a sort of Errol Morris-y aspect—though Marsh is more direct and less interested in exploring tangents than Morris tends to be. The movie starts with Petit talking about how he skirted security to get into the World Trade Center in the first place, and then it works backward and forward until the story is complete—right through the nerve-wracking, awe-inspiring moment when Petit steps into the chasm and enchants the world.
The photographs and films of Philippe Petit's various late-'60s/early-'70s tightrope stunts—which included traversing the spires of Notre Dame and the pylons of the Sydney Harbor Bridge—are suitably breathtaking, and the very idea of walking between the World Trade Center buildings definitely stirs the imagination, and evokes nostalgia for the days when crimes of trespassing and disorderly conduct were more benign. But Marsh's film lacks a certain broader scope—or necessary contrast. Marsh could've picked any number of counter-stories to put Petit's feat in context: the building of the towers, the history of Houdini-like public stunts, the relative letdown of Petit's post-WTC life, etc. Instead, Man On Wire mainly focuses on the logistics of the stunt so intensely that the details of shooting a rope across the chasm and hiding out from security guards eventually lose their sense of wonder, and become as mundane as listening to an ex-jock describe how he once caught the winning pass in the state championship. It's a story worth telling, yes—but after 90 minutes, it's hard not to wonder if the storyteller can talk about anything else.