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By Martin Hall

The stories, near unbelievable, are strange but true.  Paris, June 1971: a man tightrope walks across Notre Dame Cathedral.  Sydney, June 1973: he walks the high wire between the two pylons of the Harbour Bridge.  New York, August 1974: the same man steps out on a nylon cable between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre and an indelible piece of New York history is written.


James Marsh’s enthralling documentary Man on Wire is an attempt to re-tell those stories, the stories of Philippe Petit, the Frenchman who stepped into the unknown that misty August morning to commit the artistic crime of the 20th century.  A collection of re-enactments, interviews, photography and Petit’s home footage, it features interviews with all those who helped plot ‘Le Coup’.  Despite their welcome input it is very much a portrait of the artist as a young man and the captivating and charismatic Petit has lost none of the elfin energy or unshakeable confidence that enabled him to perform such incredible feats. 


Petit’s obsession with the Twin Towers began before they were even built.  In a Dentist’s waiting room one day he read an article about these structures which would be the tallest ever seen.  A seed was planted.  He took the magazine page home and began six years of meticulous planning, numerous disappointments and a glorious denouement. 


The film mainly relies on the recollections of Petit, his then-girlfriend Annie Allix, ‘Inside Man’ Barry Greenhouse and friends Jean-Louis Blondeau and Jean-Francois Heckel.  The most striking aspect of these interviews is how in thrall they all were to Petit.  He had an almost hypnotic effect - something akin to the leader of a cult - on all of them.  Despite their obvious devotion (particularly Annie’s) to him they were unafraid to question the logic of his challenge.  They provided the method to the madness and although Petit become a worldwide icon after that day, the importance of the others should not be understated. 


Reconstructions are also heavily used.  These imaginings drive the narrative and the documentary fizzes along without ever feeling rushed.  They add suspense (there are times when it feels like a heist movie) as well as bringing the era to life; you can almost smell the Hai Karate at certain points.  The reconstruction of the oblivious security guard pacing feet away from the hiding gang is pure comedy and creates a sense of the fun the group enjoyed.


Although no video exists of Petit’s walk there is plenty of home footage of his preparation in Vary.  Allix and co desperately heave and tug at the wire to replicate the wind disturbance Petit would encounter.  The integral part of the master plan – firing the cable with a bow and arrow from one tower to the other – was born here and there is an innocence about the group’s celebration when they finally realise it’s a workable idea.  Espirit de corps.


Petit is an engagingly eloquent interviewee and his passion cannot be doubted.  His poetic, quasi-philosophical monologues compensate for the absence of video footage of the deed itself.  Although cameras caught the stunned expressions of those transfixed, including Allix, on the streets below, we rely on pictures (predominantly those taken by Blondeau) to convey the magnitude of the achievement. 


And the pictures are breathtaking.  Petit possessed the nerve of a bomb disposal expert. He knew one slip or freak gust of wind would kill him yet he stayed on the wire for 45 minutes.  The image of him making his first tentative steps onto the cable, his feet as sensitive as a pickpocket’s fingers, seems like a CGI trick. 


The Police were soon called and the attending officer describes Petit as a “tightrope ‘dancer’ - because you couldn't call him a ‘walker’”.  He made eight crossings before returning to terra firma, afraid the wind from a Police helicopter would knock him off.  When asked why he did it, he replied: “When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk.”


The simple silhouette of him - dressed all in black - set against the New York sky and skyline is a poignant image given what would happen later and would be adapted as the New Yorker’s image for their September 11th edition in 2006. 


Bob Dylan wrote a song called Don’t Fall in Petit’s honour and the Frenchman is as many-faceted a character as Todd Haynes’ Dylan in I’m Not There - dreamer, artist, visionary, poet, outlaw.  “To live outside the law you must be honest” Dylan once sang and those words seem apt to describe Petit and his almost unreal achievements.  But it’s another Dylan lyric that resonates the most when reconciling Petit’s glory with tragedy 27 years on: “May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung/ May you stay forever young.”




Judd Apatow films are becoming increasingly like Oasis singles.  The formula changes only slightly with each one, breaking new ground is not on the agenda and the derivativeness is ignored by the likes of Loaded and FHM who unfailingly award five stars for each new release. 


In fairness to Apatow and Noel Gallagher, their creations are always enjoyable and there’s worse crimes than sticking with a formula that’s worked with phenomenal success for a number of years.  Apatow will never be Martin Scorcese, Gallagher will never be Johnny Marr and neither do they pretend to be.  It’s not about reinventing the wheel – just keeping it turning.


Forgetting Sarah Marshall is an enjoyable if predictable comedy from Apatow, the man behind Knocked Up and Superbad.  Kirsten Bell plays the titular Marshall, who has been with boyfriend Peter Bretter (Jason Segel) for five years.  This being an Apatow film, Bretter is punching miles above his weight.  Bell is electric, Bretter eccentric and his laziness becomes too much for her to take.  She dumps him and he reacts badly, wallowing in self-pity for weeks, before heading to Hawaii for a holiday. 


On his arrival at the Turtle Bay Resort, he sees Bell with her new feller, rock ‘n’ roll star Aldous Snow, played by Noel Gallagher’s new best mate Russell Brand, and the rest of the film is a fairly Apatow-by-numbers effort albeit with some piss-funny moments, most of which involve Brand.


He is without doubt the best thing here and there’s a temptation to fast-forward to the scenes he’s in.  He plays a wilder, more extreme version of himself down to the addiction issues and daily meditation though without the Guardian column and Tony Cottee obsession.  His put-downs are caustically dead-pan, his dress-sense as outrageous as you’d expect and he gives his character the perfect blend of pretentiousness and psychosis. Although portraying an exaggerated version of his own persona is hardly an indicator of silver-screen superstardom, Brand’s comic timing and mannerisms indicate he has plenty of ability.


Snow is worshipped by Matthew the waiter, played brilliantly by Jonah Hill.  He seems oblivious to the insults Snow sends his way and there’s a homo-eroticism to his fawning admiration.  Hill’s been ace as stoners in other movies and his attempt at a Cockney accent is even funnier than Charlie Hunnam’s (admittedly unintentionally hilarious) effort in Green Street.  Paul Rudd also impresses as Chuck/Kunu, the surf instructor more interested in bifters than bodyboards.



Segel does okay with his lead role but rarely excels in the same way that Seth Rogen did in Knocked Up or Hill did in Superbad.  He was ace in Apatow’s TV series Freaks and Geeks and is evidently highly rated by him.  Segel also wrote this film and if his script feels a little bit heavy-handed at times there’s enough here to suggest promise for the future. 


If Knocked Up and Superbad were Apatow’s Definitely Maybe and Morning Glory, then Forgetting Sarah Marshall is his Don’t Believe The Truth - while it may not be a classic there’s still enough diverting moments to make it worthwhile. 







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