The police report hovered, as such documents often do, between literal description and bewilderment, showing the letter of the law to be touchingly at odds with what the felon was up to. He certainly ‘performed a high-wire act’, but was it with ‘intent to cause public inconvenience’ and did he actually create ‘a hazardous condition which served no legitimate purpose’? The felon in question, Philippe Petit, who in 1974 crossed on a wire from one tower of the World Trade Center to the other eight times, lay down on the rope for a while, and surrendered to the police only when a helicopter was sent after him, is the subject of James Marsh’s remarkable film Man on Wire. Or rather, not quite the subject, as he certainly is of his own 2002 book about the exploit, To Reach the Clouds, but something like the energetic and amiable excuse, the protagonist overtaken by a story not at all his own.
The book, as its title suggests, is about an act of heroic mischief, a triumph of human skill and invention. It was written immediately after the towers had fallen, a memorial to what they had meant to one man, and a sturdy refusal of gloom, a call to a reconstruction of the spirit. In the film the fall of the towers is not mentioned, indeed no event later than 1974 is mentioned; and we repeatedly see on the screen what the book, even in its photographs, could only gesture towards: height, distance, sky, buildings since vanished but then still in use, a man walking in the air. The film gives us a peculiar intimacy with vertigo, of time and of space: we don’t literally feel it, of course, but we feel we know it as we didn’t before.
We remember, although the film doesn’t tell us to (and perhaps because the film doesn’t tell us to), other, later figures who couldn’t walk in the air, and especially perhaps Richard Drew’s famous photograph, taken at 9.41 a.m. on 11 September 2001, showing a man dropping downwards head first, one leg bent at the knee, only the abstract vertical lines of a building behind him, a construction that in the photograph has neither top nor bottom, beginning nor end. Walking in the air is an infinitely perilous game, but it is a game, in the film and in the book. Falling through the air, on that day, was a choice between forms of death. The second story makes the first look curiously innocent, an event from an entirely different world. Even Richard Nixon, glimpsed in the film on a television screen, seems to belong to a kinder, safer time. He says, in his characteristically shifty way, that he is not a crook, but of course he is. His very shiftiness is a comfort, a sign that we know where we are, that real horror is miles away.
Everything in the film works towards this effect, holds us firmly in that earlier world, makes us wonder where it went and whether we ever lived in it. Much of the narrative, following Petit’s book, is constructed as a mild suspense story. How to get into the buildings with the necessary equipment, how to get to the top without being discovered, how to avoid the security guards rather casually patrolling the upper floors. Quite a lot of easy-going suspense is generated by a detailed account of the long hours during which Petit and one of his co-conspirators hid under a tarpaulin while a guard prowled past them now and again, as if the real danger here, the thing to worry about, was not that Petit might tumble to his death but that he might not be able to carry off the caper. Can we remember now what it felt like to believe that dodging a security guard might be fun, a bit of mild naughtiness? One of Petit’s friends eloquently and correctly says in the film that what they were doing was illegal but it wasn’t mean or ugly. Man on Wire is an elegy for the time when we understood such distinctions; and an invitation, of course, to think about all the things we do that are mean and ugly and legal. This is where the police report both gets and misses the point. Petit did not cause a ‘public inconvenience’ and he created ‘a hazardous condition’ only for himself. But what about his act serving ‘no legitimate purpose’? We could say that it served the legitimate purpose of dramatic and surprising entertainment, or of any outstanding athletic achievement; or that it was splendidly and deliberately without purpose, an act of liberation from humdrum function and legitimacy. We could say that it served an illegitimate purpose, that its illegitimacy was its licence. But all such formulations point us towards the transgression rather than the feat, and surely it’s the feat that matters.
This is the film’s chief interest, but it is maintained very quietly, always there but rarely spoken about. Indeed the film’s discretion and lightness of touch are what give it its special distinction, its mixture of visible charm and implied pathos. Petit’s appearances in the film are important in this respect. As the older man he now is he is always in high spirits, fluent, funny, perhaps a companion one would prefer to take in small doses. As a younger man he appears in clips as the street artist, dressed in black, wearing a crumpled top hat, riding a monocycle at great speed through a crowd, sometimes juggling skittles as he goes. We also see him practising for his great adventure; and performing two earlier sensational coups, a wire-walk between the towers of Notre-Dame, and the same thing between the pillars of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The wonderful word ‘funambule’ is used several times, evoking the famous 19th-century Théâtre des Funambules and its appearance in Les Enfants du Paradis. The word means what it says, bringing together the Latin terms for ‘rope’ and ‘walking’, but it has the colour of the music hall or the circus, and it is haunted by the funeral it may seem to announce. Petit’s American exploit is a cultural crossing: danger in New York as a kind of French gaiety.
Petit’s friends and helpers, interviewed on film, both confirm and trouble this view. They are all older, of course, proud of Petit, proud of their role in helping him to do what he did. At moments they recover their old amusement, and the gaiety of the adventure – the lightness of its extreme seriousness – returns. But they also look a little lost, as if they too can’t quite believe there ever was such a world as the one they are recalling. This is especially true of Jean-Louis Blondeau, Petit’s closest friend, the tactician and realist of the group, and the man who kept Petit on a slower track when he wanted to rush things. He is very lucid about the whole story, genuinely entertained by the memory, but towards the end of the film, twice, he pauses in his conversation with the camera, buries his face in his hands, and cries. The first time the tears seem to express sheer surprise, an overwhelming by retrospective delight: they really did it. The second time the tears seem to be for something unspecified but manifestly broken in Jean-Louis’s relation with Petit, some severance that occurred around or after the great event. For Marsh perhaps, and for the viewer of the film certainly, the tears are something else again: the onscreen record of everything we are trying not to think.
The buildings themselves play an important role. Petit says he first learned of them when he read a magazine during a visit to a dentist, although of course he was too young to have conceived of his exploit then, and the towers were still just a project. At an early point in the film we see a shot of what looks like Ground Zero, cranes and excavators at work in a deep hole in the earth. But it isn’t a picture of Ground Zero, it’s a piece of film taken at the time of the construction of the towers: a before we can’t tell from an after. What these temporal markings suggest is not just that buildings, like people, come and go, rise and fall; but also that our historical imagination has curious limits or runs into curious difficulties. For some time after 2001 many of us found it hard to imagine the New York skyline without the towers, although we had never liked them much when they were there. Even now, they sometimes flicker in the mind before our eyes adjust once again to their absence. The movie makes us think of this phenomenon as a figure for our failure to deal with the arrival and the absence of many less material things. In a more sinister mode, some of us for several months after September 11 found it hard to imagine an empty or innocent sky, a sky without planes about to appear and crash into a tall building. Man on Wire restores to us the world we can’t imagine: a place with and without towers, where mischief is merely playful, where the risk of heights is solely a matter of balance and gravity, and where a person who chooses to court death can do it in his own way.