"Why? Why is he doing it?"
The question of why is asked by a passerby to Annie, who is on the street in New York City pointing and shouting at her lover who is seemingly floating high in the air between the newly constructed Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. As she relates this portion of the story in the amazing documentary MAN ON WIRE, she expresses her utter bafflement to the question. Her answer is, simply, why not?
What director James Marsh has done is taken the story of Phillippe Petit, a French tightrope walker obsessed with the idea of performing a high-wire act atop the towers and created a documentary both beautiful and magical, an artful balance of different tones and styles that mimic the ethereal actions of Petit and his crew. He's helped by the fact that Petit is a born performer, charming and enthusiastic in his interviews, who also had the foresight to extensively film much of the planning and practice that went into his eventual triumph in New York. Marsh takes this footage and skillfully combines it with interviews and narration not only by Petit, but most of the people involved in executing the plan.
Although "plan" doesn't do justice to the events that transpire to get Petit up in the air. Some of the posters advertising MAN ON WIRE call it a "heist" film, and that's as good a name as any. The structure of the movie could have been lifted from any number of 50's crime films, and Marsh uses this to his advantage, blending the real life footage with dramatic reenactments, shot in black and white in an often surreal, film noir style perfectly matched to the music of composer Michael Nyman, much of which had been used in the films of Paul Greengrass. These sequences, such as when Petit and one of his crew are forced to sit under a tarp for hours as they wait for a security to leave the floor so they can begin to lug their equipment to the roof is blends an equla does of suspense and humor, and work better than many similar works that are straight dramatic fiction.
All of that is put aside once Petit sets his foot upon the wire, and the actual footage coupled with his own account during his performance is breathtaking. There's footage taken from the time of one of the arresting officers who states, "I don't think I'll ever see anything like this again."
It's his words that I'll take away from MAN ON WIRE more than anything else. He gets it. Phillippe Petit's display doesn't require explanation: it is a pure act of magic, done with wires and poles, a gift to himself and a gift to those able to witness something none of them could possibly have imagined when they woke up that morning and got ready to head into work.
Some are always in need of an explanation, of the "why". Others are content with the simple existence of that which they see.