Many a parent of young children will be familiar with Mordecai Gerstein’s Caldecott Award-winning “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers,” the enchanting, beautifully illustrated story of Philippe Petites’ still impossible-to-believe tightrope walk across the World Trade Center twin towers in 1974.
Gerstein’s book has the dreamlike look and feel of a story that would be right at home in the pages of a classic children’s fairy tale – but in this case, the tale is true! Some crazy guy really did conspire to string a cable wire across the newly-built twin spans in lower Manhattan, stepped onto that wire, and for over 40 minutes gracefully glided to and fro some 1300 feet above the streets below on an early August morning.
For the last ten years those towers have probably never left any American’s mind for long, and in an odd way, reading the book to my children was always an uplifting digression – a reminder of the soaring, joyful heights humankind can climb – from the grim reality of the pure evil that brought those majestic buildings down.
So it was with great delight that my wife and I recently stumbled upon “Man on Wire,” the 2008 documentary by British filmmaker James Marsh. Somehow this fantastic little number had found its way into our Netflix queue (we are very much a Netflix 1.0 household, having gotten to the party just as everyone seems to be leaving – hey, what happened to Blockbuster?), and thank goodness for that because it was one of the most entrancing and endearing films I’ve seen in some time.
This Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature provides us the back-story of Monsieur Petite and his quest to conquer the towers. If there is such a thing as a true genius, Phillippe Petite is it. A natural-born gymnast cum magician, the mischievous, irrepressible Petitte took to the wires early in life and gained a reputation as one of the most daring and charismatic street performers in Paris. His Parisian coup de grace came in 1972 when he pranced across a tightrope connecting the twin spires of Notre Dame Cathedral, gaining him international fame. Later he glided high above Australia’s Sydney Harbor Bridge, ending up, as was now his custom, in the awaiting arms of not-so-enthusiastic law enforcement. (As an impish flourish, he then pinched the wristwatch off the unknowing arresting officer.)
But these “little” jaunts were just his warm-up act. Petite’s sights were set on bigger – much, much bigger – heights.
According to the documentary, Petite became obsessed with the idea of walking between the towers when he first encountered a story about plans for the twin spans in a magazine in his dentist’s office in 1968. For the next six years, Petite meticulously plotted every detail of his caper with the help of a most unlikely combination of artsy young French idealists and a collection of oddballs, stoners and brainy slackers of the early 1970’s New York City vintage. These characters were definitely not in the children’s book.
The path to the summit of Petite’s unlikely Everest takes so many unbelievable and ironic twists and turns it is hard to believe any of it can be true. The near misses by security, the night spent under a tarp 110 floors up, and the complex engineering required to jerry-rig a 135-foot long cable that would be his stage in the sky are recounted from first-hand accounts. The brilliant use of both recreated and original video footage and photography add further mystery and incredulity to the tale.
I mentioned before that this was one of the best films I’ve seen in some time and the last may well have been the similarly surreal, curious and masterfully-crafted, “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” another documentary (or is it?) about a French character – a graffiti artist – who finds himself at the center of the Los Angeles art world.
As with “Exit,” after absorbing the impossibility of “Man on Wire” we are left asking the same question: did this really happen?