2 Stars — Shallow reflections

The life of the World Trade Center towers and Philippe Petit are remarkably intertwined. At age 17, Petit, as a young Parisian street performer, saw a picture of the two towers that were going to be built in New York City and explains that he knew then that it was his goal in life to walk a wire between them. He does so on Aug. 7, 1974. When he is successful his life’s purpose seems to collapse around him. This walk of consuming passion is presented on film by James Marsh in the documentary Man on Wire.

Taking the actual words on the arrest papers by the New York City Police Department, Man on Wire is a composite work. Actual footage is woven seamlessly with actors who allow us to walk with a small group of friends through years of their lives as they come under the spell of Petit and his obsession not only to walk the wire, but to do so in illegal venues from Notre Dam Cathedral to the towers of a bridge in Sydney to walking between the two tallest buildings in the world, the Twin Towers.

With a clear sense of needing to walk above the usual rules of life, Petit (played by Paul McGill in dramatizations) calls companions to join him. His first recruit is a young woman named Annie Allix (played by Ardis Campbell). Explaining that Petit never really asked her if she had any goals of her own, Allix is willing to give herself to following him in his — something she does on the practice wire in the garden of his home. In her words, Allix explains that when they are successful in traversing the towers, it is as though their purpose for being together is also finished. Their love story is somehow connected with the towers and ends with them.

Other companions play slightly different roles. Jean-Louis Blondeau and Jean-Louis (played by David Demato) are lifelong friends who care about Petit, and because they know the depth of his passion are willing to be arrested to assist him. In a very different role is a collection of people who are willing to assist him, from making fake security badges to helping secure the cable. These people are described by Jean-Louise as “losers” who want to be a part of the escapade itself.

As Americans, there is something deeper that happens in watching the film. As we watch Petit grow up and learn how to be a street performer, we watch the towers being built. Put side by side on screen, we watch their forms mature together and accept Petit’s explanation that the towers’ very existence is linked with his own destiny to walk a wire between them. Though the film does not address the fact that the towers are no longer here, it is clear that in a mystical way something died with Petit once he walked between them. Perhaps that’s because his passion was not high enough.

» Allix explains that part of the passion for Petit was the illegality of his walk. She thinks it’s because of his strict upbringing. Why do you think people become fascinated with doing things that break the rules?

» The amazing complexity of the feat required breaking the security of the Twin Towers. How did that part of the tale affect you? Was it unsettling or exciting? Why?

» What is the passion in your life? Is it large enough to transcend this world?

Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church on the Mesa. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.