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Film / Man on Wire

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Just don't look down.

"I observed the tightrope 'dancer'—because you couldn't call him a 'walker'—approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire... And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle... He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again."
Sgt. Daniels, Port Authority Police Department

Man on Wire is a Documentary by James Marsh released in 2008. It depicts the planning and execution of the historic 1974 Twin Tower tightrope walk.

On August 7, 1974, at 7:15 a.m., French tightrope artist Philippe Petit, having hung a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center, proceeded to walk on it—with no harness nor any form of security. For 45 minutes, while a crowd of incredulous onlookers watched, Petit walked a total of eight times from one tower to the other. He also ran, jumped, sat and lay down on the wire to watch the sky. Then he gave himself in to the police.

Using archival footage, reenactments and interviews, the film deliberately uses the narrative methods of a heist movie, since the preparations had to be conducted illegally by a small team and a great attention to detail was required.

A dramatization of the events detailed entitled The Walk directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit was released in 2015.

Watch the trailer here.

It has nothing to do with Man On Fire, despite the similar pronunciation.

Provides examples of:

  • The '70s: There is no doubt which decade you're in. Petit's outfit even included bell-bottom pants.
  • Binocular Shot: Done with stock footage of the towers as Phillipe describes surveilling them to get an idea of who goes where, when deliveries come, and the like.
  • The Caper: The documentary is structured, to great effect, as a real-life caper film.
  • Contrast Montage: Photos of Petit from childhood to teenagehood are contrasted with footage of the World Trade Center at various stages of construction.
  • Delivery Guy Infiltration: Petit's team wore the uniforms of delivery crewmen in order to get past security.
  • Don't Look Down: Intentionally averted; Petit explicitly looks down when on the wire, since it's a once-in-a-lifetime view.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: Justified, since Petit uses famous architectural landmarks to pull his tightrope walking stunts. Apart from Notre-Dame in Paris and the World Trade Center, he also used Sydney Harbour Bridge, in sight of the Opera House.
  • Failed a Spot Check / The Guards Must Be Crazy: Several times Petit and co. risk being caught by the police, but the cops tend to do a pretty bad job of surveillance. Two of them park for hours in the rooms where the gang are hiding, but don't bother to look under the tarps where they are hidden. One comes onto the roof while they're setting up the tightrope and is fooled by the classic gag of "circle around a pillar on the opposite side of him". Petit even almost runs into him, but the cop didn't notice because his back is turned!
  • Heroic BSoD: Petit's courage falters him the first time they sneak into the tower, as the height seems too much for him. He gets around it, though, by renting a helicopter to fly above the tower, so he can get himself used to a height even taller than the one he'd be crossing.
  • In Harm's Way: Petit enjoys putting himself in life-threatening situations for the sheer thrill of it. "If I die, what a beautiful death!"
  • Karma Houdini: After the walk Petit was arrested and charged with trespassing and disturbing the peace. However, the district attorney made him a deal that all the charges against him would be dropped if he acts for free in a wire-walk show for kids in Central Park. After Petit got a lifetime pass to the observation deck of the Twin Towers, letting him visit there whenever he wanted.
  • The Ken Burns Effect: Used for a couple of stills.
    • One dramatic use shows a still of Jean-Louis, on the far tower, apparently in the act of pulling up the slack on the tightrope. Then the camera pans down the picture and shows Philippe, in closeup, with an Oh, Crap! look on his face.
    • An even more dramatic use shows a still photo of Philippe lying down on a tightrope. Then the camera pans up to show two Port Authority cops watching him, signaling that the police have arrived.
  • The Lancer: Jean-Louis is Phillipe's right hand man and Best Friend, and without his reason and technical competence, the stunt would not have happened. However, the aftermath of the stunt results in the loss of their friendship.
  • Magnetic Hero: Downplayed by Petit; his accomplices who weren't his friends beforehand are all drawn to his charisma and vision. Ultimately subverted and deconstructed—several of them only wanted the thrill of helping and abandon the plan when things get hairy. The stunt ultimately costs him his friends and girlfriend.
  • "Mister Sandman" Sequence: The reconstitution of August 6, 1974, begins on a close-up of a black-and-white TV which shows a press conference by Richard Nixon speaking his iconic "I am not a crook" line.
  • Model Planning:
    • After renting a helicopter and getting some photos of the two roofs, the gang makes a model of the roofs, for planning. They even have little figurines representing themselves.
    • 30-odd years later, a new model of the towers was made for this movie, as Philippe explains how he hooked up his tightrope.
  • Monochrome Past: Used for recreations of past events throughout the film, mostly of the walk. But there are other black and white scenes, like when Phillipe tells a story of how he read a magazine article about the Twin Towers when he was a teenaged boy waiting at a dentist's office.
  • Obfuscating Disability: After accidentally injuring his foot, Petit realizes that a man in crutches doesn't arouse suspicion, and after his injury has healed he keeps walking in crutches for some time in order to fool security.
  • Oh, Crap!: One of Petit's friends is noticeably chilled when they first come onto the tower roof, and realize just how windy it is up there.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: Believe it or not, but when Petit walked between the towers, his team forgot to turn on the cameras, so that only still pictures of the feat exist.
  • Once Upon a Time: Invoked by Phillipe, who starts his narration by saying "Once upon a time—that's how you start fairy tales, and actually my story is a fairy tale."
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Petit's team.
  • Recycled Soundtrack: Marsh recycles scores by Michael Nyman originally composed for Drowning by Numbers, The Draughtsman's Contract, The Piano and other films.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The climactic wire walk takes place over a quiet piano piece by Erik Satie.
  • Split Screen: The opening montage is a split screen showing, on the left, the World Trade Center being constructed, and on the right, still photos of Phillipe's childhood.
  • Talking Heads: People who were part of the event giving interviews for the camera, in standard documentary style.
  • Tightrope Walking: Possibly the most famous Real Life instance of this trope, as a French tightrope walker illegally strung up a wire and then walked between the towers of the World Trade Center.
  • Victory Sex: Philippe Petit celebrates the end of his quest to walk a high-wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center by having sex with a groupie.
  • Visual Title Drop: The film title comes from the police report of Petit's performance. In the space under "Details of Complaint" someone wrote "MAN ON WIRE."
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Philippe steps on a nail. This turns out to be fortuitous, because he realizes that people on crutches don't draw any attention from the guards, except when the guards are volunteering to help him get around. So he starts to use his crutches, even after he no longer needs them, as a method of sneaking around the WTC.