3 Elements That Make ‘Man on Wire’ Great

In 1974, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit walked between the twin towers on a thin cable 1,350 feet in the air. Man on Wire tells his story. 

1. Dramatic style.

Philippe Petit walks between the Twin Towers
©2008 Jean-Louis Blondeau / Polaris Images

The opening scenes of Man on Wire set the “heist” style of the film, as noted in Sheila Curran Bernard’s Documentary Storytelling, and also build a suspenseful slow disclosure of what the film is going to be about. Death is mentioned three times in the first two and a half minutes of the film. We see closeups of boots, a shirt, a hand, a watch, and eventually parts of the city. The Twin Towers are not mentioned until the end of the sequence, when Annie Allix says that Philippe Petit needed “to conquer those towers.” This sequence is evoked later in the last twenty minutes of the film, when Petit again references the closeness of death as he takes his first step onto the wire between the towers.

The “heist” style of Man on Wire stems not only from the story itself but also from Petit’s own recounting of his actions. Allix notes that Petit was pleased to be working on something “like a bank robbery.” Director James Marsh carries this idea forward in recreated scenes with noir-like lighting and staging. The characters tell their stories in first person, creating a sense of excitement and immediacy.

2. Dynamic personality.

Throughout the film, Marsh lets Petit’s personality take center stage, following Petit’s movements and using them to transition into the recreated scenes. Petit crooks his hand to demonstrate how the world becomes slanted, and the road that appears mimics the direction and position of his hand. He moves his fingers to the right, and the pen that punctures the cloth follows the same movement. This seems particularly apt not only because it is Petit’s story but also because he is such a dynamic and compelling speaker.

3. Dynamic framing.

In one scene, the camera lifts to look down at Petit from a high angle as he looks up and raises his hands. We transition to a series of shots in which the camera appears to be moving upward in an elevator. The camera on Petit raises even higher to frame his hands as he draws a square that becomes the top of the elevator shaft, and we see a series of elevator shots conveying movement up, up right, and even down. This sequence raises the tension by introducing contrasting directionality, without confusing the audience as to the actual direction of the elevator.

Marsh also raises tension and draws the audience into the story by cutting shots very short and moving the character within the frame. Petit tells the hide-and-seek story in two separate locations, facing different directions, which also reverses the direction of his hand gestures. The familiar interview shot is a closeup with Petit on the left, while the newer shot is a medium shot with Petit on the right. Marsh cuts between the two with increasing speed, mimicking the circular chase that Petit is describing. Finally the newer shot becomes a closeup as Petit himself spins, pulling the audience completely into the circular motion, until the police officer in the recreated scene slams the door—in the opposite direction from that in which Petit exited. The door-slam ends the sequence by abruptly halting the circular momentum and releasing the “wound-up” tension.

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