There are many things a movie about a man walking across the Twin Towers on a tightrope can be; being a documentary, however, history is the first thing that comes to mind. What makes Man on Wire so great, however, is it isn’t a history—it’s a story, and a moving story at that.
When the film opens, Nixon is on TV talking about Watergate; this sets the timeframe of the movie, but the camera quickly pans over, and it becomes apparent that the history-making news conference doesn’t matter to this movie—time becomes frozen, because what was going on culturally and socially doesn’t matter to this film.
Had time matter, the director probably would have spent more time talking about how many people were upset that the Twin Towers were being built, and how people saw it as a bit of waste, but that the man’s dance actually put a renewed interest in the towers, and helped boast it’s public image. Had time matter, the director probably would have also talked about how such a project was funded and how Philippe Petit made money. And had history matter, he surely would have talked about the history of the tightrope act giving at least a vague reference to famous acts like The Flying Wallendas. But, of course, none of this matter, because this film was more a celebration of life and accomplishment then a documentary of the act itself.
Several years ago, Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park had a high wire show to promote the opening of a new part of their park (I think it was the opening of The Boardwalk, although I’m really not sure, because I can find absolutely no history about this historic tightrope walk anywhere on the Internet (so I guess there are some things only found in books?!)). Basically, a high wire was placed at the top of one ride (I think it was Boomerang), and stretched to the top of the Sky Jump ride (a tall tower 225 feet high). My parents drove my brother and I to a parking lot adjacent to the park, and we watched with hundreds of others the walker make the walk.
There really was nothing spectacular about the walk; the walker might have walked backwards or did some kind of trick, but that was about it; but to my eyes, that walk was amazing, and the person who performed the feat was instantly my hero. I don’t know what made it so great, although I suppose a lot of it was because there’s something mighty in the fearlessness of a person who performs such a feat.
I imagine what I saw in the man walking the high wire in California is what New Yorkers saw the day Philippe Petit walked between the towers; they saw a man who was fearless—who was cheating death—and there’s something morbidly heroic in that—even inspiring. And that’s what the film is about: a man who wants to go face to face with death, and ultimately wins.
I felt a bit cheated by the end of the film; I wanted more conclusion that said whatever happened to Philippe Petit and his friends, but I guess the director wanted it to be clear that it didn’t matter—the film was the celebrations of a moment, and to show what happened to the people involved would take away from that moment.
The movie can be watched for free if you have a Netflix account; if you do then do yourself a favor and watch it—you won’t be disappointed.