Close Scene Analysis: Man on Wire

In 2008, James Marsh’s Man on Wire took the festival circuit by storm winning the Special Jury Award and Audience Award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and then capturing the Jury Prize and Audience Award in the World Cinema: Documentary category at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. A few months later, it took home the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 81st Academy Awards. Man on Wire chronicles Philippe Petit’s wire-walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in August of 1974. Constructed like a classic heist film and utilizing interviews, blow-by-blow re-creation and re-enactments as well as archival footage even including Super 8 footage from Petit’s personal camera, Man on Wire transcends the label of documentary. With this strong underlying narrative, Man on Wire comes to a head during a fantastic climax scene that mixes together still photographs, interviews and archival footage to simultaneously tell parallel stories and leave the audience in awe.

A still-photo of Petit

In order to comprehend how this scene serves the filmmakers goals, it’s important to first examine what the filmmaker’s goals are. Given that the film is not advocating a social cause, the goal reverts to telling a great story. Marsh sets out to tell a story about a man, but more importantly about an attitude towards life that refuses to acknowledge limits and boundaries and to tell it a nostalgic way as opposed to sentimental. Marsh wants to introduce the audience to a world where anything is possible and uses the film as his medium. With the prevalent theme of the consequences of human relationships, Marsh crafts parallel stories that trigger excitement, suspense and sweaty palms for the audience.

To fully understand the scene in question, its vital to briefly put the scene in context within the larger story. Up until this point, Marsh chronicled Philippe Petit, a French wirewalker and street performer who had previously performed a high-wire walk between the towers of the Notre Dame in Paris as well as between two pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia. Having seen a picture of the Twin Towers in a magazine, Petit became obsessed with wire walking between them and begins to plan his strategy, which included numerous trips to New York. Following a tumultuous build-up, Petit and his crew finally set up the wire, which leads to this scene.

A still photograph of Philippe Petit, as seen in Man on Wire

The scene begins with a still photograph of Petit’s first step out onto the wire, accompanied by the sounds of nature and Petit’s voiceover, “death is very close.” The frame remains on the still photograph for a long time, which becomes a theme throughout and we slowly zoom out to gain perspective of a small man against the massive backdrop of the building. While Marsh is not present in the movie, you could still tell his stance towards Petit is one of awe and marvel. He keeps the still frames of Petit on the screen for what most would consider far too long to give the audience the feel that something is happening and we need to pay close attention. No live footage of his walk exists and while re-enactment worked in other times of the movie, in this instance it would seem unsatisfactory so the montage of still images seemed to be the way to go. The photographs helped to capture how ephemeral this moment was and how dream like it was and watching it, it almost conjures up visions of some sort of miracle.

The score also complements the scene perfectly as the gentle piano seems both menacing but jubilant, evoking either a foreboding feeling or a triumphant feeling. Marsh effortlessly mixes in an interview with Petit as he recalls his experience and then an interview with his companion who set up the cable. The companion breaks into tears and it is now apparent that Marsh successfully transmitted a classic story of a hero going on an impossible quest with all the setbacks and impediments along the way and succeeding nonetheless. The still frames continue and he includes a shot from the ground of a microscopic Petit in between the two towers and slowly zooms in. It was a perfect juxtaposition between Petit’s idealist artistry and the towers, which represented the financial and capitalist center of the world.

One in a series of still photographs that Marsh employs so sucessfully

One of Marsh’s goals was to not romanticize the event but rather tell stories from many different perspectives and use the overlapping accounts and parallel stories to make the story dynamic. The editing here really lends itself to that as we now move on to an interview of his then-girlfriend who was at the base of towers as she recalls her experience. The amazement in her voice helps illustrate how incredible this moment was. We revert back to still photographs while still hearing her interview and now Marsh edits in a still photo of people at the base of the towers looking up in wonderment and then another interview from a different companion so he presents the audience with 4 distinct accounts from that day.

The score becomes more intense and Marsh zooms out on one of the still photographs and the audience sees in the corner a pair of Port Authority policemen watching Petit from the roof. Marsh edits in archival footage of the media interviewing Charles Daniels, one of the policemen who witnessed Petit. Marsh wanted to tell a story, one that is part of New York City folklore but wanted to give an honest all-encompassing tale of the event and he succeeded admirably. By effortlessly splicing present-day interviews, complementary sound editing, still photographs and archival footage, Marsh not only presents 5 distinct accounts of the events that transpired that day, he makes the audience feel present at an event that occurred over 30 years prior with no live footage available and does it in such a way that there is massive poetic undertones.

The climactic scene of Man on Wire is one of the more memorable scenes in recent documentary history. Combining a flawless use of still photographs, a fabulous score and perfectly edited archival footage, Marsh is able to recount these iconic moments from multiple perspectives. The scene comes together perfectly as he seamlessly blends the content and beautifully serves his goals. It is the perfect conclusion to a free-flowing story that built excitement, suspense and anticipation and like Marsh wanted, makes the audience feel like anything is possible.


3 thoughts on “Close Scene Analysis: Man on Wire

  1. What a marvelous film and what a marvelous analysis. Thanks for that! Surely will inspire me to revisit the work in the next few days. The media mixture in the film is not uncommon, but it seems so in the ethereal context of MAN ON WIRE. Instead of halting the narrative, the photographs seem to stop time altogether. Thanks for the great essay.

  2. I show Man on Wire in my documentary history class. This is the most eloquent piece of writing I’ve read on the film. Its required reading from now on, and a real inspiration for the rest of us frustrated writers. Thanks.

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