High Strung 

Man on Wire documents beautiful rebellion

This last winter, the world became a little dimmer with the deaths of two iconic men who personified daring, grit and the spirit of adventure. I'm speaking, of course, about daredevil Robert "Evel" Knievel and Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to conquer Everest. These men helped pave the way for countless numbers of explorers and adrenaline junkies and brought a little more wonder to the globe. In an increasingly litigious society, in which liability waivers, expensive permits and insurance agreements have become the norm for those with the audacity to dream, these men defied a public notion of propriety and human limitation, and challenged the odds. For Knievel and Hillary it was simple: see a mountain—climb it. Spot a canyon—leap over it.

Cut from the same cloth as these two is Frenchman Philippe Petit, whose feats are the subject of the new documentary Man on Wire. In 1974, Petit and a gang of cohorts sneaked into the then-incomplete Twin Towers in New York City and strung a tightrope between the two buildings. To the consternation and amazement of police and public a quarter mile below, Petit danced on this wire for almost an hour, making eight crossings in that time. Director James Marsh intersperses interviews with historic footage and saucy noir-influenced reenactments.

Petit spent six years planning the caper, noting shift changes, befriending "inside men" and even posing as a journalist to interview workers on the roof while surreptitiously photographing anchor points. Back in France, the film chronicles Petit and his friends as they build scale models of the buildings, practice rigging the rope and work out timetables. Their excitement and dedication to pulling it all off draws the audience in and makes us a part of the adventure.

The coup has been called "the artistic crime of the century," and Petit himself viewed the act as a sort of civil disobedience.

"It's so simple that life should be lived on the edge of life," he declares in the film. "You have to exercise rebellion, to refuse to taper yourself to rules."

This spirit of revolt is shared by his co-conspirators, who point out that the walk was against the law, but in no way wicked or mean-spirited. An attitude of mischief infuses the film with the same glee found in any heist movie.

The difference between crime and wrongdoing is an age old quandary. Whose responsibility is it to enforce prudent behavior—ours or big brother's? Man on Wire offers its answer, the same answer that motivates all manner of thrill seekers from extreme sports enthusiasts to English Channel swimmers. Life is meant to be lived on the edge, so don't let the man bring you down.

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