There's a palpable tension running through James Marsh's high-wire documentary, a sickening sense of dread that has nothing to do with French provocateur Philippe Petit or his 1974 tightrope walk between Manhattan's newly built Twin Towers. It comes from the knowledge of what will eventually happen to the World Trade Center that haunts Man on Wire, even though Marsh never makes mention of it. And he made the right decision not to, focusing instead on a group of young people whose goal was not destruction, but to defy convention.
Petit may have been the one to traverse the cable strung in the sky, but his support team made these appearances on national landmarks possible (including the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia). That they were breaking the law (usually criminally trespassing) was not a deterrent, it was part of the thrill, allowing this artist to redraw the lines of everyday expectations.
Blending extensive interviews with Petit and his crew with well-done re-creations and stunning archival footage, Marsh creates a portrait of not just a time and place, but a very specific mind-set, where mischief was meant to enlighten those it touched, and the only one who could be harmed was the solitary man on the wire.
Although Marsh uses Petit's 2002 memoir To Reach the Clouds as a guide, and the self-taught acrobat gets the most time on camera, he remains enticingly enigmatic. With a rare combination of easy charm and immense concentration, the charismatic Petit inspires devotion; you can hear it in the voices of those who joined his quixotic quests, even after years of estrangement. Was he a performance artist or con artist, trickster or innovator? The only thing certain about Petit is his unwavering ability to find his balance on a tightrope, no matter where it's strung.
When Marsh plays out the crew's infiltration of the World Trade Center, Man on Wire plays like a classic heist film. Despite their meticulous and careful planning, there are unexpected reversals of fortune, ranging from the frightening to the comic, and the documentary takes on that jaw-dropping truth-is-stranger-than-fiction quality.
Without revealing how these ne'er-do-wells financed such an ambitious project, Man on Wire beautifully details an event that got residents of a beaten-down town — jaded, harried New Yorkers — to stop, look up at their skyscrapers, and see the heavens beyond.
Showing at the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.