- The Washington Times - Friday, August 8, 2008

No special effect or stunt team can replicate the tension of watching someone walk across a high wire without a net.

“Man on Wire” starts with that can’t-miss hook. The new documentary recalls the French tightrope walker who crossed between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in 1974. Yet although the act itself was extraordinary, what went into making it all happen is the heart of this thrilling film.

That Philippe Petit was able to pull off the feat without plummeting to his death is a given from the opening minutes. Here Mr. Petit is, still alive, still intoxicated by his audacious performance. Turns out he’s nearly as good a storyteller as he is a funambulist. That he has such a grand story to tell makes his appearance hypnotic.

Director James Marsh lets Mr. Petit loose, following him as he bounces across the interview room to re-enact his story.

Mr. Petit dreamed of walking across the Twin Towers even before either structure had pierced the Manhattan skyline. He simply had to act on his impulse, even if it took years for both the towers to be built and for him to hatch the right plan.

We watch footage of the World Trade Center under construction, and it feels like a ghostly rewind of the Sept. 11 attacks. We’re too familiar with those girders and beams. The clips don’t feel exploitative in any way. It’s a more of an unconventional homage to the lost buildings.

Mr. Petit figured walking across the World Trade Center would be the highest level of performance art, a way to embrace life without fear of the consequences.

He never let the possibility of death deter him. That vision attracted a small team of accomplices who were crucial to setting up his performance. They weren’t all dear friends. They simply gravitated to his nonconformist streak.

“Man on Wire” meshes actual footage shot by Mr. Petit and his crew along with dramatic reconstructions. It’s a minor miracle how seamlessly they work in lock step.

The documentary reveals just how close Mr. Petit’s crew came to being caught as they prepped for the big day. Their strategy, part improvisation, part accidental genius, plays out like a low-budget “Ocean’s 11” heist. It’s also chock-full of whimsical moments, a comedy of errors that somehow produced Mr. Petit’s finest trick.

Two of his team had to hide under a tarp for hours while security workers stalked the building’s interior. The sight of the men hunkered down, motionless, becomes a better running gag than most comedies can muster.

Yet “Man on Wire” feels naggingly incomplete. The film depicts a childlike romance between Mr. Petit and his girlfriend at the time, but it’s a love story missing integral parts. The friction between the high-wire magician and his ragtag team is given too little attention.

The film provides an intimate look at its subject matter but yanks the camera away just as we feel the need to learn more.

Still, “Man on Wire” is a fascinating documentary, a story of one man’s quest to pull off something no mortal has any business attempting.

★★★

TITLE: “Man on Wire”

RATING: PG-13 (Strong language, partial nudity and a sexual situation)

CREDITS: Directed by James Marsh. Cinematography by Igor Martinovic.

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes

WEB SITE: http://www.manonwire.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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