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Walking in the Air

Walking in the Air

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A blow-by-blow account of how, in 1974, the impish French performance artist, and ludicrously appropriately named Philippe Petit achieved (and survived) the seemingly otherworldly when he walked on a tightrope situated 1350 feet in the air, anchored between the World Trade Center’s twin towers, James Marsh’s documentary Man on Wire is a fleet, engagingly narrated, and [insert “taut” here] suspense narrative. Like the events it’s based on, Man on Wire is the kind of film that’s more inspiring to witness than it is to later think (or write) about, but let it be said that Marsh’s adeptness at mounting his tale is undeniable, and what the film lacks in any sort of subtextual richness it more than makes up in narrative functionality and the clarity with which it reconstructs Petit’s mission impossible.

Bolstered by quick cutaways to impressionistic black-and-white reenactments in the Errol Morris mold (some so brief and gauzy they appear out of the mist as though Guy Maddin baubles), and, more impressively, beautifully restored archival color footage of a youthful Petit, looking a lot like the athletic young Malcolm McDowell, showing off his lithe and lovely physique as he trains for his fateful trip to New York, Man on Wire jumps back and forth between years-long preparation and the final moments before his gorgeous feat of derring-do.

Marsh also employs talking-head interviews with the accomplices who helped Petit realize his vision, and who had either gamely seen the job through to the end or who had backed out due to their own understandable fear (Marsh never bestows judgment on the latter, instead casting everyone as essential pieces in the puzzle). Add in some obvious but well-employed soundtrack cues, from Michael Nyman’s The Piano and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover scores to, of course, a bit of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedies” to etherealize Petit’s fully achieved air dance, and you’ve got a conventionally told but well mounted work of nonfiction action filmmaking, more fixated on the how than the why, and one which will undoubtedly receive plaudits on the basis of its subject matter alone.

Click here to read the rest of Michael Koresky’s review of Man on Wire.

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