Even after seeing “Man on Wire” three times, at Sundance, as the triumphant closing night of the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri and back in Chicago, I’m ready to see it again: just about any place. It’s far and away my favorite film commercially released in 2008 to date.
James Marsh’s telling of the 1975 high-wire act between the two tallest high-rise buildings on Earth, the then-incomplete World Trade Center, by wirewalker Philippe Petit, rises above the classification of nonfiction into simple joy. As I wrote after Sundance, “With its black-and-white recreations, the movie often has the urgency of a heist thriller, and comes to resemble a dissection of the conspiracy of a clandestine cell of terrorists, yet the ultimate act, buoyed by an insistent score drawn from Michael Nyman’s back catalog, grows immensely, illogically, beautifully thrilling. Beauty need not apologize, but sometimes requires fingerprinting. When the film took its second nod on closing night, Petit suggested, ‘Keep moving mountains, keep growing wings, keep dreaming.'”
The English-born Marsh’s earlier films include the nonfiction “Wisconsin Death Trip” and the southern Gothic “The King.” The re-creations, I say when we speak, fit into the “crime narrative” he describes the film as. Each of the players is introduced in a studio setting—“Kind of like a mugshot, yeah,” Marsh chimes in. “You remember that wonderful scene in Robert Altman’s film, the Chandler adaptation, ‘The Long Goodbye’? With Elliot Gould. It was a touch of that brilliant sequence early on where he’s mug-shotted when he’s taken downtown to be interrogated. I think I had seen that film shortly before I started working on ‘Man on Wire,’ so that’s probably where that idea came from. But then I had to set up these formal, complicated [backgrounds] of these bohemians and office workers. But for the purposes of this story, this adventure, they’re criminal conspirators. And it felt like a playful way of signifying this, like ‘The Usual Suspects.'”
The high stylization comes together pretty rapidly from the beginning and I’d held my breath from the start, audiences will know what the film is about, but in the world of the movie, you don’t know it’s the Towers yet, but the style shows it’s a criminal offense, it’s an assault, an assault of performance-art terrorism, in a way. That’s what I infer as a viewer, and the film seems to fall more on the side of the heist format. I’m sitting there, thinking, of all the grievous insults, these buildings had at least one beautiful assault against them.
“Of course I was very aware of that,” Marsh says. “There is some moviemaking in that. If fact, since you’ve seen the movie a couple of times, you’re probably glimpsing a blueprint of the World Trade Center early on in that opening sequence, which, as you say, sets up a kind of, something’s going on, people are getting together, they’re up to no good. They’ve got a plot against something. Obviously, there are sort of morbid dimensions to it and we were deliberately playful about it. But of course I was aware of some of the obvious underlying connections with later events. The idea was not to show your hand too much, or to be too crude about it, but of course, a bunch of foreigners hanging around a New York monument, photographing it, examining it for its possibilities for a spectacle, it’s all implicit in the story. One doesn’t have to try too hard. If you tell the story, that’s just going to come off of it. I think it would have been a mistake to go any further with it.”
It seems less discretion or being tasteful than a canny artistic choice to never speak of the fate. It’s in everyone’s mind. “Exactly, yeah.” It’s a meta-thing, you don’t need it. “Yeahhh. I think everyone will have a slightly different response on that level, to a lesser or greater degree. Y’know, quite frankly, what is it that one would show you at the end? How would we do it? The last thing you want to do is to confuse these two events even as you rightly point out, there are interesting kinds of implicit parallels and some of the imagery, even, of people looking up. One is the inversion of the other. During Philippe’s walk, you see people looking up with joy and awe and wonder. And you see the kind of imagery with very different and much more disturbing expressions around 9/11 and the terrible disaster there. It was a very easy choice to make going, a defining choice. Going into the project. There was a little pressure from producers who say, ‘Should we get Philippe to give us his views?’ And I’m saying very clearly, no, I don’t think I’m ever going to do that. The last thing you want is repeat imagery that for me is already been repeated and cheapened and diminished and exploited as well. The other thing about what happened on 9/11 has been exploited by politicians in a particular kind of way. The whole thing is so ugly and foul and vile and we lost innocence in New York City. There’s something about New York in the seventies that was far from innocent, but this [bold act] was possible at that time. We have lost something. You can’t barrel through JFK anymore with a bow and arrow in your suitcase!”
“Man on Wire” opens Friday at Landmark Century and Renaissance.