It’s one of those happy accidents of life that I encountered James Marsh’s Man on Wire in the same week that I’d immersed myself in the box set of Ken Russell’s 1960s BBC films. Why? Because it threw into sharp relief the fact that the personal and pioneering approach to the arts documentary that Russell started 40-odd years ago is still alive and well. If James Marsh isn’t an admirer of the films in that set, I’d be mightily shocked, since he’s taken many a page from Russell’s old playbook and applied them to Man on Wire, resulting in quite the most outrageously entertaining—and wildly creative—documentary I’ve seen in a very long time.
In fact, calling Man on Wire a documentary is a misnomer—or at least it tells only part of the story. Marsh—who has made narrative films as well as documentaries—has gone far beyond the usual assemblage of interviews, still photos and archival footage. He’s added dramatic recreations, with characters playing the real-life people he’s interviewing as they would have been 30-plus years ago. And these aren’t the cheesy portrayals you encounter with non-actors badly dressed up in ancient Roman drag on the History Channel. No, these are cleverly and carefully made little dramas that actually enhance the film, well-made pieces of cinema in themselves. I haven’t attempted to break down the percentage of dramatic recreations to interviews and archive material, but there’s a substantial amount of it—some of it playful, some of it atmospheric, all of it good.
Marsh doesn’t stop there, however. He has another trick up his filmmaker’s sleeve. He’s structured the preposterous tale of Philippe Petit in the manner of a heist or caper film to chronicle the French tight-wire artist who illegally walked (eight times, no less) on a wire between the tops of the World Trade Center towers on Aug. 7, 1974. Everything is put in place—even the talking heads—to build up to the act itself and its aftermath. And what is so surprising—and such a testament to Marsh’s artistry—is the amount of suspense he manages to generate surrounding an event where we know what the payoff will be. You may think you don’t really care all that much about some guy doing something as crazy as this stunt—I certainly felt that way—but chances are that Marsh’s film will pull you into the drama of it in ways you’ve never imagined.
Part of this is the result of the fact that Marsh has the help of a wonderful subject in Philippe Petit, who’s a born raconteur and showman. Petit doesn’t merely talk to the interviewer, he regales him—and us—with the whole story and the vaguely conveyable impetus behind such a nutty undertaking. He’s almost impossibly alive and endlessly charismatic. Everything Petit does or says is somehow fascinating. You may never exactly understand what would drive anyone to want to attempt such a thing as this, but it ultimately seems more an act of artistic defiance—perfectly in keeping with its era—than a crazy stunt. Petit finally comes across as more daring visionary than crackpot loon. Petit and his personality certainly play a large part in why the film works, but don’t sell the filmmaking short.
Marsh’s ability to recreate the era, the precision with which he chooses just exactly the right interview footage and the manner in which he crafts his film is simply remarkable. He also has a good ear for music to accompany his images. Whether it’s bits of Michael Nyman’s compositions (often from Peter Greenaway movies), Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” or Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies, Marsh chooses the perfect accompaniment for his images. The results are startling throughout, creating a film that’s suspenseful, fun, inspiring and finally, even moving. In other words, see this movie. Rated PG-13 for some sexuality and nudity, and drug references.