Man on Wire

The nominations:

  • Best Documentary Feature

The Black-and-White:

A review by Moviegirl

In the first week of August 1974, Richard Nixon was planning his resignation from the US presidency, I was planning my 8th birthday party, and Philippe Petit was planning an unauthorized walk on a wire 110 stories above Manhattan.

The coverage of the first two events was, not surprisingly, extensive. This documentary provides the first video glimpse into the story behind the third. Here’s the synopsis from wikipedia:

Man on Wire is an Academy Award-nominated 2008 documentary film directed by James Marsh. The film chronicles Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center and is based on Philippe Petit’s book, To Reach the Clouds. The film is deftly crafted like a heist film, presenting rare and fascinating footage of the actual event alongside flawless reenactments (with Paul McGill as the young Petit) and modern-day interviews with the participants.

Petit read about the Twin Towers when they still in the planning stages, and felt compelled to to traverse the gap between them. He had already performed similar feats (similarly unauthorized) at Notre Dame de Paris and the Harbour Bridge in Sydney and knew that he would need a team of people — including some “insiders” who could help him get access to the building — to pull it off.

The film opens with a reenactment of the infiltration of the buildings by Petit and his accomplices. It’s not immediately clear that this and some of the later footage are reenactments, so strong is the resemblance between the actor and Petit himself. The story is told by the participants themselves, with footage from the actual event included. The interviews with Petit are particularly fascinating, both because he is absolutely charming and because he seems even now to not view his feat as patently insane.

As a side note, I’m not actually sure how I feel about the appropriateness of non-archival footage in a documentary. It seems like if the story relies heavily on reenactments, it stops being non-fiction and starts to move into the realm of “based on true events.”

Then again, the Academy’s vision of what makes the “best” documentary doesn’t seem to depend on whether the story is entirely non-fiction. The 2006 winner, March of the Penguins, relied heavily on anthropomorphism for its appeal — in fact, the original French release was dubbed so that the penguins were talking(!!). To me, that’s not a documentary; that’s What’s Up Tiger Lily?

Although I really enjoyed this film, I don’t think its chances are very good to win simply because the subject matter in this film is very different from the other nominated documentaries this year. Three of the others are “struggle”-type pieces (fighting to keep a community garden in South Central LA; living through the chaos and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; trying to keep a family together in a war-torn environment). By contrast, this film and the remaining nominated film are both about human achievement, and not typically the type of film that the Academy recognizes.

That’s unfortunate. Notwithstanding my reservations about the reenactments, this piece was really delightful and one of the most enjoyable things we’ve watched this season. This is the one I’ll be rooting for.

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