25 February 2009

Man On Wire

Directed by James Marsh
Full credits from IMDb

From the opening moments of Man on Wire, director Marsh’s tense, sublime and inadvertently elegiac documentary, the stakes are (bad-dum-CH!) sky-high. It opens with the recollection of a nightmare about nailing a coffin shut—a grim foreboding of death. Obscured figures lurk about; ominous music beats on the soundtrack. In recreations, we see Nixon on television, press conferencing about Watergate. Are the talking heads flashing by former “plumbers”? If so, why do they have French accents? Then we realize they’re in NYC, headed for the World Trade Center towers. Are they terrorists? Algerian sympathizers?

Far from it, actually: They’re executing a guerilla high-wire walk from one tower to the other. But Marsh, as has been written elsewhere, styles the film as a heist picture. The wonder of Man on Wire, though, is not merely in its expertly suspenseful storytelling. (Like a classic magazine article, the film smartly opens at the climax and steps back; the tower-to-tower walk functions as a thru-line, interrupted often by expository flashbacks.) It’s in the actual filmmaking. Marsh proves a master of assemblage: he seamlessly blends archival footage (many of those involved, thoughtful enough to understand the historical heft of the occasion, documented the preparation and the act itself in still and moving pictures), interviews and reenactments (filmed in sharp, shadowy black-and-white textures that evoke, alternately, Jean-Pierre Melville’s French New Wave noirs and Guy Maddin’s silent film pastiches) with a pitch-perfect, pan-genre score by J. Ralph that adds tension and levity as needed.

Marsh also gets significant help from his protagonist, wirewalker Philippe Petit, a master storyteller in his own right. Animated, enthusiastic and good-humored—he balanced an Oscar statuette on his chin at the Academy Awards!—he knows exactly when to give and when to withhold. A modest ancillary cast of curious characters round out his presence: it took roughly half a dozen conspirators to case, break in and prepare for the wire walk, which they finally executed one morning in 1974. Marsh digs into the gritty details of the “crime,” the sheer logistical impossibilities—getting all that equipment up 102 floors, running the wire from roof to roof, coping with the wind conditions—as well as the personal strains, including the fear of arrest and, worse, death. (One nagging question is never addressed: how is this whole operation bankrolled?)

That a documentary focused on the Twin Towers should be so focused on death, whether through omens or spoken fears, is fitting. Man on Wire’s ostensible tribute to risk-taking fizzles, and the film is instead reborn as a loving tribute to the Towers, which, neither in life nor in death, ever seemed so majestic, so awesome or such a testament to human ingenuity as they do here. (In reality, they were eyesores.) Marsh wisely never mentions September 11th, knowing it would be overkill, crassly sentimental arm-twisting, as of course it’s already on the minds of every audience member. When an arresting officer at the scene says, of the walk, that “it was a once in a lifetime kind of thing” that no one would ever see again, the audience is able to add an extra layer of cruel irony to the remark without Marsh’s prodding.

Those involved in the walk are brought to tears on camera as they recall the glorious beauty of seeing a man walking, godlike, across the sky. Those teardrops are so genuine that I was brought to tears, too, even though all I witnessed were videotaped photographs: reproductions of reproductions. Such is the sophistication of Marsh’s filmmaking. After this transcendent climax, the film ends ruefully, back at sea level with broken hearts—much like the end of the towers’ lives, too. Not that it needs to be said. Grade: A

Watch the trailer:

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