Man on Wire (2008)

Published: Mar 9, 2009 |Updated: Apr 9, 2009


Philippe Petit is a a man who has taken the masculine calling of living life on the edge a little further than most. It is an August morning in 1974, a slight breeze is felt in the damp summer air, and Philippe is looking into the abyss, his foot resting on the ledge of certain death. He is about to cross the chasm between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, on a line perilously rigged in the black of the Manhattan night. And he is doing it without safety. What lessons are to be found along 70m of near-death experience? Philippe, lead the way...

Production year
James Marsh
Male actors
Philippe Petit (as himself)Paul McGill (young Philippe)

General spoiler alert!

» Walking the tightrope

I always liked to climb as a child. I don't know why. Ask the psychiatrists. Maybe they would tell you it was to escape, to feel free. I don't know. All I know is no-one could keep me from climbing. Not the police, not my parents. Noone.

When Philippe first heard about the construction of the Twin Towers as a seventeen-year old, he made line-walking between them his life's purpose. From that day onwards, the film shows us, he moved with single-pointed determination towards this exhilirating and completely lethal display of creative madness.

The story is told through a series of interviews with his friends and "accomplices", archival footage and dramatization of the events that transpired. Philippe and his team recount the day he walked between the two towers of the Notre Dame, as priests were kneeling before God in the hallowed building beneath him.

He walked across the two towers of the bridge in Sydney harbour, as crowds of stunned aussies were gathering beneath him. These death-defying - and highly illegal - events were merely preparations for the mother of all line-walking stunts, signposts on the way to New York. It was an all-consuming passion for him and the gravity of his focus and inspired madness were what drew the team-members to him. Plans were made, strategies of infiltrating the towers meticulously planned. Then, 1974 arrives.

Anticipation builds

The World Trade Center is complete, a bauta of masculine achievement in the middle of Manhattan. The anticipation in the inner circle around Philippe is palpable as the achievement of his goal - or the unthinkable plummet to his death - draws closer. The illegality of the coup-like event, infiltrating the WTC under the guise of crafts- and businessmen, has Philippe very excited. "There always was a bad-boy side to Philippe", his then-girlfriend Annie reminisces. He liked to break the rules. The mischievous glint in his eye confirms her words.

But there's another and much more important thing that stands out about him; Philippe is an incredibly playful and passionate man. He does not seem bound by the fetters of society, of the boundary conditions established by the many as to what is acceptable behaviour. He seems to be himself fully. And it is this quality of being ourselves that releases the energy contained by a life of sleepwalking. We experience an influx of energy, a zest for life long forgotten, trapped as we were in the cynicism and pointlessness of a well-adjusted life. But Philippe, it is clear, is not too hot on conformity.

The gravity of Philippe's life purpose is so strong that Annie, his girlfriend to be, is sucked into its vortex. "From the day we got together", she tells us, "I disappeared. From then on, it was all about fulfilling his destiny". Strangely, she seems only half-sad about that. We would do well to remember that a man who is on track with his life, and who knows what he wants, is incredibly sexy to a woman. Today, in our culture, knowing what you want and going for it is not exactly encouraged, unless it's firmly within the confines of conformity. The social order requires of us extreme care so as not to cast light on other people's mediocrity. We must avoid authenticity at all cost, as denying our true selves is the cornerstone of capitalism, a system in which meaning in life is bought and not sought. In other words, an authentic life is a threat to the foundation of our civilization. Philippe is a rebel. And he may be about to die.

Walking the line

It is early morning, there is a slight breeze up in the clouds, and "death is very near". Philippe takes one step out, then two. The void opens hungrily beneath him. Death is all around; he doesn't know his wire - he has never felt it before. And his unfamiliarity with it makes his face tense. He is going to die.

Then, friend Jean Lois remembers, his face changes, - a smile grows in his face - and Jean Lois knows he will be alright. He knows his friend well; at the very same moment, a sigh of relief escapes Philippe. The wire is on his side. Now, his gleeful 50-something voice exclaims, "It'z time to perform"!

He spent 45 minutes dancing back and forth on that metal wire, as his friends - by their own account - felt themselves enter a state of pure, exalted bliss. In their faces, recorded over thirty years after the actual event, I see the lingering glow of those touched by grace. Tears flow down their faces. It's as if their eyes glow with the simmer of the sacred. This segment is very moving. Such purity of expression and emotion are a rare find; this is what happens to those who witness the masculine face death, and emerge victorious. It brings us face to face with some deep intangible feeling in ourselves, and calls us to another plane of being. We are literally, energetically, pulled up above. Philippe may have been self-involved, but this was as a beautiful gift.

Transcending why

"Why did you do it", the American journalists ask Philippe as two stunned police officers bring him down from the roof. "There is no why," he replies with a thick French accent. "That iz the beauty of it!" Philippe appears to have transcended the reason for "why". The rational mind would never walk across that wire. It is too preoccupied with self-preservation. It asks "why" mainly to perpetuate itself. This can be a good thing, but as Philippe points out, those rare moments of purity in which our rational minds just stop, and thoughts of why, how, when and where subside - those are the moments that present us with the truest source of beauty. If we go through life only doing things because we think they will benefit us, we may fail to see the beauty that surrounds us where we are. We may fail to find the joy in doing something just because we want to, fail to realize that where we are is already quite awesome. We may, in short, forget to live.

Treat every day, every challenge as a work of art

Philippe's life changed after that day. He became a different man. His life's purpose had been fulfilled, and now he needed to move on to other pursuits. What those were, the film doesn't tell. But the art that is his life seems to still be a work in progress:

To me, it's really so simple, that life should be lived on the edge. You have to exercise rebellion. To refuse to tape yourself to the rules, to refuse your own failure, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge. Then you will live your life on the tightrope.

What does it mean to "treat every day, every idea as a true challenge"? Could it mean to honor the creativity of our minds, to take every expression that emerges out of the subconsious seriously? We spend a ridiculous amount of time thinking about what could have been or what may be. We waste a lot of mental energy habitually drifting to the past and the future. No surprise we get depressed, lost, and afraid. Listen, take that idea and run with it. Make love with it. Treat it with the respect it deseves. Treat yourself with the respect you deserve. Make it happen! Don't wait any longer. Because death is all around. And when we plummet into the abyss for the last time, our only companion will be our regrets.

Take a chance.

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