New documentary is able to walk the line between heist movie and poetic masterpiece

On the morning of Aug. 7, 1974, crowds gathered below the World Trade Center on the bustling streets of New York City could spot a tiny figure dancing between the towers.Frenchman Philippe Petit, with over six years worth of scheming, had managed to bypass security and illegally rig a wire between the buildings, then the tallest in the world, and spent about 45 minutes tiptoeing and turning across it. He was arrested, brought to jail and psychologically studied. Based on a true story and on the book by the daring wire-walker himself, entitled “To Reach the Clouds” (2002), James Marsh’s stunning documentary film “Man on Wire” captures our wildest dreams and constructs the portrait of a unique individual.

Truly, “Man on Wire” does not feel like a documentary you might watch in the classroom, one that makes you pry your eyes open to stay awake. Marsh frames the story with all the thrill of an “Ocean’s 11” (2001) heist. “Man on Wire” seems like an old detective film from the beginning, with black-and-white reenactment scenes often focusing on extreme details — a ticking wristwatch, pens in a coat pocket, a hand resting on the side of a van.

Marsh delights in the versatility of the camera, transitioning into a split screen, juxtaposing old videos of the towers’ construction with Petit’s earliest childhood wire-walking. It is as if the two are made for each other, or as Petit’s love interest explains: “[The towers] belonged to him, as if they had been built especially for [him].” Overall, the film has a smooth flow, providing neat transitions during the action into the background and planning process, a technique that keeps the story from becoming tedious.

Just when you feel yourself getting caught up in the excitement of the crime drama, you remember that the most remarkable part is that unlike George Clooney, Petit is the real deal. Some of the most unforgettable sections of the movie come when Petit takes over the storytelling and acts out the images himself. His interview segments are more accurately described as performances, in which his visual and verbal poetry takes center stage. Petit has a wild, raw energy to him that is contagious.

When describing the thrilling moments in which he and his co-conspirators evade security guards in the towers, Petit pokes his head out from behind a curtain and with a sly smile calls it “hide and seek.” At one point, Petit demonstrates his wiring plan with a couple of cardboard model towers and some yarn, gesturing excitedly about a mischievous scheme transformed into child’s play. During one dramatization, he tells of how he stripped down to search for the arrow which had been used to send the wire across the towers, feeling his way with the thin string against his skin. Suddenly, he is not simply a French acrobat, but a Peter Pan figure flitting about in the moonlight.

In addition to gripping viewers with its drama, Petit’s story surprises with some genuinely heartfelt and downright spectacular moments. We see the perspectives of his friends and cohorts throughout the film, some of whom are colorful characters. Petit’s girlfriend Annie Allix paints a picture of the extraordinary man for viewers, and struggles at times to express the “magical, profound” nature of the film’s climax. Jean-Louis Blondeau, the rational accomplice who often reminds his friend of the more practical and dangerous aspects of the entire venture, is brought to tears when he attempts to describe the overwhelming hope and joy which accompanied Petit’s final act floating above the city.

The score by Michael Nyman is, in a word, wonderful. His masterful range of soaring melodies and energetic tunes complement the various emotions brought out during both the suspenseful and touching moments of the film.

Nyman’s work goes beautifully with the soft piano notes of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédies,” reminiscent of autumn leaves, which follow the light footsteps and swaying of Petit as he steps out onto the wire. In the final shot of Petit in the present, wire-walking above crinkled fall foliage, the same delicate notes surround his motions.

On the most basic level, “Man on Wire” is a story about living life with passion. “Each day is like a work of art for him,” Blondeau says of him in the film. Accordingly, the most memorable line in the documentary comes from Petit himself when he asserts: “Life should be lived on the edge … Live your life on the tightrope.”

His story, most simply put, is one of immense beauty, and not something to be missed.

While strolling across the academic quad today, look for the wire tethered to a couple trees in front of West Hall. If you’re feeling adventurous, perhaps you can try your own hand at “living life on the tightrope.”