It is 0715hrs on a foggy New York morning in August 1974. 415 metres above a waking city, a 24-year-old Frenchman steps out unannounced onto a wire strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
No, it’s not the opening line of a fictitious screenplay. What became known as ‘The Artistic Crime of the Century’ really happened and Philippe Petit’s story has now been made into a captivating documentary, Man on Wire which opens today in the UK. Last month, I saw a preview at the BFI Southbank which turned out to be an extra special occasion because the man himself was at the screening.
After six years of meticulous planning and two previous wire walks at Notre Dame and Sydney Harbour Bridge under his belt, Philippe and his accomplices managed to sneak their way in to the World Trade Center building disguised as workmen. After hiding overnight, they strung a 43 metre wire between the still-unfinished towers and against all the odds the mission was completed. Not surprisingly, Philippe became an overnight celebrity.
“When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk.”
James Marsh’s film takes us on an engrossing and endearing journey towards this extraordinary achievement, although I would say that the distinction between reconstruction and archive footage wasn’t always clear enough for me.
In an entertaining Q&A session after the film, Philippe was asked where he would like to wire walk in London. “On an incline to the London Eye” was his response and I’d certainly like to see that! He was also asked how he felt on September 11th 2001. It was a question that was bound to come up but he graciously declined to answer saying his feelings were private and he didn’t want to taint the moment in time captured by the film.
Go see the movie. It’s the triumph of one man achieving the seemingly impossible and his spirit, tenacity and guts will knock your socks off.