©2008 Jean-Louis Blondeau / Polaris Images.

Tonight Tasha and I watched James Marsh's excellent and inspiring documentary Man on Wire. The film is about Philippe Petit, the Frenchman who walked on a wire strung between the two towers of the World Trade Center in August of 1974. Before watching the film, I was somewhat familiar with this event that took place several months before I was born, for which Petit is still famous, but I had no idea of the extent to which Petit had gone in planning what was dismissed by many as a crazy stunt.

The film starts out with an account of the day leading up to the event--which ultimately took place the next morning--told by the various participants and co-conspirators, and then pulls back to detail the root of what became Petit's obsession--to walk between the two towers. He's in a dentist's office awaiting his turn and is reading a newspaper describing how the World Trade Center--not yet built at the time--would become the tallest buildings on the planet. He tears the story from the paper and runs out of the waiting room. What follows is a gloriously Herzogian story of passion, drive, charisma and intensity that spans several years and three continents and involves many collaborators, ultimately culminating in the famous walk between the towers.

We witness Petit's first public walk, between the two towers of the Notre Dame, and then a subsequent crossing of the two pylons of Sydney's famous bridge, in Australia. We meet his collaborators and his girlfriend of the time, who in recounting their involvement seem only too happy to have spent many months of their time and effort and risked jail time in assisting him with his endeavors and training. As the documentary plays out and the action shifts back and forth between Paris and New York, we learn of the ingenious ruses that Petit and company employed to recon the site of their adventure, one time passing themselves off as a French media outfit in order to get photos and gather intelligence about the structure of the towers' rooftops. Another time, they hire a helicopter to get pictures from the air. The film shows the dioramas of the rooftop painstakingly built by Petit and discusses the detailed logistics involved in their many forays into the off-limits areas of the towers, which were still under construction even as Petit was working on the final plans for his walk.

As the day and night leading up to the walk arrive, the participants recount the serendipitous luck they had in gaining entrance to the rooftops of the towers, followed by their near discovery by a security guard. Petit and an accomplice spend hours balanced on a steel beam hiding beneath a tarp before they dare to sneak past the security guard and onto the rooftop proper. As the night turns into morning, they encounter several unanticipated logistical setbacks in rigging the cable.

Finally, as morning progresses and Petit's chance is beginning to disappear, he steps out onto the wire around 7:00 AM, 1350 feet above Manhattan. There is apprehension and uncertainty in Petit's face as he sets out onto the high wire, but it is soon replaced with a beatific smile. For the duration of the walk, his face bears an expression of radiant concentration mingled with utter joy as he plays in the air a quarter mile above the city streets, from where he later recounts hearing-- or imagining to hear--the roar of the crowd gathered far below. As he lies down on his back at the midpoint of the wire halfway between each tower, I'm overwhelmed by the magnificent and preposterous sublimity of his situation: He is a calm center, a fulcrum on which the precipitous enormity of the world meets utter stillness and rests for a short time in a fine balance. Over 45 minutes he makes eight passes between the two towers before acceding to the demands of the police that he come down.

Of course, Petit and his friends and accomplices are arrested, and Petit is later taken in for psychiatric evaluation. Ultimately, he is released and charges against him are dropped and he becomes a celebrity.  Petit does not remain unchanged by his celebrity, and his relationships with those who helped him achieve his life's ambition deteriorate, as they remain in the shadows while he is widely celebrated for his stunt.

What resonated with me perhaps the most in Man on Wire was not Philippe Petit's skill in walking between the towers, rare and impressive as it may be, but the single-minded purpose with which he set about accomplishing his goal over the course of many years, which in and of itself would seem an act of madness and utter folly to many. Further still, he was successful in convincing others to give of their own time, money and resources, and risk their freedom to help him in his project. The doggedness and passion with which he pursued this walk, which was the defining moment of his life, is incredible and inspiring to me, in the way of Shackleton's exploration of Antarctica or Herzog's Fitzcaraldo.

I can think of few well-known parallels, historical of fictitious, where skill, passionate intensity of purpose, and a life shared with others in a spirit of convivial adventure come together to produce what can only be adequately described as luminous moments of art, at least as they are so adeptly conveyed by Marsh's film. Maybe some of this is the stuff that initially drew me--and still draws me--to rock climbing. Though I'll never be an Alex Honnold or Dean Potter, I can still experience subjectively those precious moments of flow where adrenaline, fear, and apprehension give way to a certain calm euphoria that ripples through the consciousness like a gentle breeze. I know plenty of others spend years chasing it, choosing to live the life of the dirtbag climber, ski bum, river rat, or BASE junkie.

In fact, it's hard for me to imagine why so many people choose to live a life constrained by debt, career, and conventional social obligations that numb the senses and the soul and offer so little in return. Why is it that Phillipe Petit's quest would appear to many as utter madness, when the real insanity is an utterly conventional and superficial life of financial ambition, aspired to by so many, the highlights of which are a nice car, a corner office and the promise of a retirement spent on a golf course. The world is a much more vital, joyous, and interesting place thanks to the likes of Philippe Petit, the Fabulous Flying Frenchies, Alex Honnold, and all the unknown others out there, doing it because they love it, and because they have to...