Monday, 16 January 2012

Film Review | Man On Wire (2008)

Without wishing to oversimplify the documentary genre, a good documentary essentially needs two things to make it a success: an intriguing subject, and flair of execution. If one of these two is severely lacking, then the film falters. American: The Bill Hicks Story is a recent example of a documentary that had the potential to be excellent but wasn't because one element of the two didn't cut it - Hicks and his career are potentially fascinating, but the way the documentary was put together felt awkward and inaccessible. American is also a prime example that succeeding in one of these two factors cannot make up for lacking in the other. The vast majority of viewers would surely agree that Man On Wire has one of these aspects in the bag before you've even begun to watch. The question therefore that must be answered during the film's ninety minutes is this: does director James Marsh have the flair to bring into being a potentially truly brilliant documentary?

In case you're not aware, Man On Wire has what must be one of the most intriguing subjects of any documentary, that being high-wire artist Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the North and South towers of the World Trade Center on 7th August 1974. The film chronicles the walk itself and the complex methods utilised by Petit and his team to set up the walk, as well as Petit's life and career from the moment he first conceived the idea of walking between the Twin Towers in 1968, before construction of the towers had even been completed.

The film's subject matter, and the man at the centre of it all, Petit, do not disappoint. Petit's life is undoubtedly captivating and extraordinary, and the feats he achieves both at the Twin Towers and on other daredevil tightrope walks leading up to the WTC walk are wondrous to behold. Petit too is a filmmaker's dream - a vibrant and eccentric personality, likable, mischievous yet a little bit scary, almost like an imp en Français. He commands the camera and yet feels incredibly natural; the Petit we see never feels like an act, making his feats all the more magical and the man genuinely enigmatic.

Marsh's style is on the whole successful, but never matches its subject matter in terms of charm. He opts for a mix of stock footage taken at the time of the events themselves, talking heads of Petit and those involved in his stunts, and reenactments of events with actors playing the parts of Petit and his collaborators. Marsh attempts to present the whole film like a heist movie, which works at some points and feels forced (even a little amateurish, especially during the reenacted scenes) at others. Marsh also has the problem of his other contributors not being nearly as captivating as Petit himself. It occasionally feels as though the film becomes oversaturated with speakers to the point where I started forgetting exactly what role each of them played in the events.

Marsh chooses to focus entirely on the events of Petit's life from 1968 to 1974, and whilst this means we learn a great deal about this genuinely amazing period, it also means that the subjects of the film are never fleshed out fully. We learn next to nothing about Petit's childhood or life leading up to his decision to walk between the Twin Towers. Nor do we find out much at all about the direction Petit's life leads following the stunt. Any reference to the eventual fate of the Twin Towers on 11th September 2001 is also entirely absent, as is any reference to the WTC's lack of popularity as a landmark before Petit's stunt, and the increase in this following it. Marsh's decision to focus entirely on Petit and his crew's lives during this strict six year window ultimately becomes a double-edged sword - we are spoilt by the amount of detail devoted to Marsh's chosen time period, but ultimately left hungry for a little more breadth.

When taking into account all aspects of Man On Wire, the film can be considered far more hit than miss, but definitely not a film without fault. Marsh's choice of the Twin Towers stunt and Petit as his focus reaps huge rewards - the event and the man are genuinely captivating. It is Marsh's execution that holds the film's flaws. These are not glaring, unforgivable errors, but feel more like Marsh has relied a little too heavily on his subject matter to make the film a success. This works to a point; but it also means that, every so often, you wish that the documentary chronicling such astounding events was slightly more astounding in its execution.


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