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LAist Movie Review: Man On Wire

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Everybody wants to be the first to do something spectacular; it's all wrapped up in glory and vanity and ego. Sort of like every thirteen year old you see. And, to be fair, the main character in Man On Wire (Philippe Petit) is much the same way. His burning desire, overactive hormones, and lanky body would quickly carry him to heights never before walked by man.

As a documentary, Man on Wire is really set nowhere, but the bulk of the movie resides in the mid 1970's, when crazy-ass hippies were seriously down for any old crazy-ass thing. Including, but not limited to, setting up 200 feet of high-tension steel gauge wire to span the newly-built World Trade Center towers. And then walking across it to the other side. In the daytime. 1350 feet above street level. Without permission. Not even from God.

But perhaps God Himself wouldn't be so mad at Petit's audacity, if he'd actually taken a minute to sit down and hear the story of how such an insane scheme could actually come about. And this is what Man on Wire does so beautifully; it presents the saga, not just the story. From the turbulence of youth to the heights of the Notre Dame towers and all the way down to Australia, the story walks in so many different directions you may wonder if it will fall. But of course it never does; balancing perfectly between dual precipices of self-indulgence and sugar-coating.

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Man on Wire is a tightly-wrapped cinematic package that presents one man's simple story: to conquer without fail. The man is Philippe Petit, the cantankerous salesman turned Frenchman, who masters arts most foreign to the common man. Juggling, pick-pocketing, sleight of hand, and of course the wire all fall prey to Petit's voracious appetite for knowledge and showmanship. But when a French newspaper fortells of the building of the World Trade Center towers in New York City, Philippe sees a challenge, and an opportunity, and refuses to let go.

Surrounding him in his quest to walk the towers is a ragtag group of burnouts, musicians, and businessmen; sort of like a poor man's A-Team, but without the van. Instead they rely on meticulous planning, uncompromising work ethic, and an uncanny ability to sneak past not-so-watchful guards. To add spice and drama, there is the typical love interest and the last-minute triumphs and failures, but the focus of the movie (and why it succeeds so masterfully) is the strength of the journey. Not content to simply showcase an event, director James Marsh immerses the audience in the nuances of "the artistic crime of the century". Aided wonderfully by the Director of Photography Igor Martinovic (fresh off Padre Nuestro, which won the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic independent films at Sundance in 2007). The shots, the storyline, and the editing all work so well together that they begin to make the film feel lighter than air, leaving you breathless and startled at such an achievement. Not to mention the tightrope walking.

Anyone who has lived next to a farm or seen this film will occasionally sniff out the unmistakable scent of bullshit, but it is certainly not a deterrent. In fact, any moments of grandiose story-telling merely act as fertilizer to help bolster the narrative, allowing Man on Wire to grow up from the roots of a desire, to the blooming achievement of one man, dangling high above the rest, who just couldn't be happier.