"Death is the Mother of Beauty" (on "Man on Wire")

Note: I've just got Netflix, so this may become something of a film blog for a while until I catch up on the many, many interesting semirecent releases I've missed.
The construction of this documentary sometimes strays towards the cheesy, as with the computer-animated plane that tracks the protagonist’s travels, or the borderline Unsolved Mysteries–style reenactments. Yet the incredible story of Philippe Petit’s unsanctioned 1974 tightrope walk between the twin towers fully shines through, aided by some incredible archival materials and by Petit’s own pleasantly hammy storytelling. It’s almost a stroke of luck that no motion footage exists of the walk itself, turning that impossible reality into a kind of sublime semi-absence at the heart of the film, leaving the filmmakers to linger over still-shots of Petit grinning as he strides confidently across the wire, or lying languidly on his back gazing up like a picnicker on a hill—except seen from a quarter of a mile below. Seeing these images, knowing what Petit went through to get up there, it’s difficult not to feel as overwhelmed by the event as the eyewitnesses telling the story—and even the cop who arrested Petit afterwards (captured in a contemporaneous news interview) appears to tear up a bit as he speaks of “watching something that somebody else would never see again in the world.”

Whatever pall of grim prophecy is cast over those words by the subsequent history of the World Trade Center is consciously ignored by the film, yet not tonally inconsonant with its implicit critique of the monomania, and the attendant selfishness and irresponsibility to those who aid and support him, that drives Petit to his miraculous performance. The image of this man defying all authority, from the police on up to gravity itself, to achieve something like tranquility and freedom on a literal walk through the clouds—it’s truly beautiful. But it’s also impossible to forget—indeed, it’s necessary not to forget, since the beauty depends on it—the 1300-foot deep mouth of death above which he balances.