What’s so impressive about Man on Wire isn’t so much what it does, but what it doesn’t do: it largely ignores the life of Philippe Petit. Instead, this well-crafted and often times beautiful film focuses on a moment, both the wire walking of the World Trade Center and the mood in the late 1960s and early 1970s: what allowed Petit’s act was as much when he performed it as what he accomplished. Certainly walking on a wire in between the (then) two tallest buildings in the world is as gut wrenching to imagine as it is explained in James Marsh’s documentary; Petit’s ridiculously animated personality, his anti-establishment acts acknowledge his danger at the same time of stunning those wishing to transcend the West’s greatest architectural and capitalistic triumphs.
Even if Man on Wire dips into the absurd, reintroducing its interviewees to diminishing returns, it feels like a crime picture where the supposed criminal is clearly the most sane. The overuse of Michael Nyman music creates a bombastic thrust wildly unnecessary considering the subject matter, though the film is nearly vindicated by its welcome use of Satie, however a popular piece it may be. And as a visual work, it’s stunningly well produced, employing (and trusting) its archival material and diagnosing Petit’s antics as something in Keaton, Chaplin, or Tati territory. Some of the recreated moments of the WTC wire walk fall painfully flat, while others elevate the film to new, strange heights. A flawed, but very beautiful film.