Petit was only 17 when he saw a news story in a French newspaper, announcing the construction of the world's tallest buildings. He became possessed by a feverish desire to walk between those twin towers. The fulfillment of his dream would have to wait while the towers were built, during which he notoriously walked a tightrope between Notre Dame's steeples, and over the Sydney Harbour Bridge, becoming, in the process, an international (petty) criminal and man of mystery.
The aptly named Petit, an impish, elfin figure (who currently lives in Woodstock), wrote of his great escapade in To Reach The Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between The Twin Towers, which served as the basis of Marsh's thrilling, moving, utterly delightful film. Structured like a heist movie, Man On Wire (the title comes from the inelegantly phrased police report following Petit's arrest) features interviews with Petit and his partners in crime, including his then girlfriend Annie Allix, and his right-hand man, Jean-Louis Blondeau, as well as a few loosely organized associates in New York, including Barry Greenhouse, their "inside man" in the World Trade Center. The planning of "le coup," as they called it, took years. The logistics of the feat were daunting - nothing like it had ever been done before - and yet, for Petit, the entire project, from inspiration to execution, was summed up by a simple line, casually drawn between two sketches of the twin towers. Just like that. Dream, scheme, do. The execution of the plan took nerves of steel, but also youthful enthusiasm, artistic zeal, lots of rope, and, in the end, a leap of faith.
Who would do such a thing, risking life, limb, and the certainty of jail, for no profit? It's the fundamental mystery behind Petit's highwire act, but Marsh doesn't address the question directly, instead letting the answers reveal themselves, to the extent that they do. Can a fundamentally irrational act ever be explained or justified in a rational way? Any attempt to provide a straightforward and comprehensive explanation for Petit's guerilla performance would lead only to banality where profundity is called for. Instead, Man On Wire pulls the viewer in, like a painting, or a novel, to experience the ups and downs and ins and outs of Petit's quixotic quest. The story is pieced together from still photos, tantalizing bits of home movie footage, and Marsh's clever, humorous reenactments.
When Petit finally steps into thin air (or the abyss), it is terrifying, exhilarating, breathtaking and awe-inspiring to watch. Even knowing that Petit survived, it is impossible not to get weak in the knees when he makes his great leap. What must it have been like, for people on the ground on that August morning, to see the tiny speck of a man balancing between the modern marvels of architectural excess? What was it like for Petit to stand on top of the world, and then step off?
In still photos, Man On Wire recalls the birth of the World Trade Center, in the place now known as Ground Zero. It's impossible not to think, fleetingly at least, about the death of those towers when you see the hole in the ground from which they sprung up, which looked then remarkably as it does now. Marsh doesn't dwell at all on the eventual fate of the towers. Man On Wire is not about death, nor even, strictly speaking, about a death-defying act, but about life, and the joy of being, and the need to walk and to live on the thin edge, without a net. It is also about the immortality of art - and the film leaves no doubt that what Petit did was in some way a crazy, liberating, life-affirming, glorious work of art, an achievement for the ages. Petit's highwire act was but a fleeting moment in the life of man, and the life of the city, but, as with the buildings that inspired him, the spirit behind it is eternal, enduring long after the physical evidence is gone.