Part caper movie, part real-life superhero saga, and entirely engrossing, James Marsh's documentary recounts in Rififi-like detail how a Parisian street performer and wire walker named Philippe Petit dodged cops, fought the elements, and defied seemingly impossible logistics to pull off a feat of death-defying frivolity: an illegal, hastily rigged tightrope walk, on Aug. 7, 1974, across the 1,350-foot plunge between the World Trade Center's twin towers. Still lithe and trim, with a mime's precision of gesture, the now middle-aged Petit animates the movie with his impish presence, retelling the six years of struggle and the myriad complications en route to the fateful walk. The tale makes for gripping cinema: The visual medium conveys not only the terror and wonder of Petit's feat, but also its airy surrealism—a defiance of gravity made even more elating by its life-or-death consequences. Man on Wire is also haunted by the story it doesn't tell: Although the movie relies on present-day interviews with its subjects, the date September 11 is never uttered. But that void turns Marsh's film into a ghostly meditation on the transience of human accomplishment. All monuments, someday, end up tombstones. But for the duration of this exhilarating doc, the towers stand—and so, atop and between them, does Petit's once-in-a-lifetime achievement.
Even today, Petit is a thrill seeker.
Opens at Egyptian, Fri., Aug. 8. Rated PG-13. 90 minutes.