An unmarked van filled with plotters hiding behind fake IDs, aliases and disguises disappears unnoticed into the parking garage under the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Today that's the definition of sinister, a portent of something terrible to come, but on August 7, 1974, it was the prelude to something magnificent: Philippe Petit's incredibly risky high-wire walk from the roof of one Twin Tower to the other.
That amazing moment is a bit of pre-9/11 World Trade Center history worth recalling, and director James Marsh's (WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP) handsomely produced documentary follows the story behind Petit's record-breaking stunt, from the moment he first saw newspaper pictures of the still-to-be-completed World Trade Center as a youth in a dentist's office waiting room and Petit's two previous high-profile wire walks -- one between the twin towers of Paris's Notre Dame cathedral, another across the pilings of the Sydney Harbour Bridge -- to the laborious preparations on a French farm and the seemingly insane walk above the abyss itself. According to Petit's then-girlfriend, Annie, the entire scheme was something like a carefully planned bank robbery, and the documentary takes on the nerve-racking rhythm of a caper film as Marsh follows Petit and his team of co-conspirators -- a motley crew that would eventually include a trio of oddball Americans who wanted in on the mad adventure -- as they work out the logistics of the walk: How to get nearly a ton of equipment to the roof of the World Trade Center unnoticed? How to extend the rope from one tower to the other? How to stay suspended 1300 feet about the ground as the winds blow and the buildings sway? Through interviews with Petit, Annie and his associates, dramatic recreations, archival footage of Petit preparing for the walk, as well as haunting images of the now-gone towers, Marsh's film offers a provocative glimpse into the strange personality of a man who seems driven to achieve the impossible, but one that doesn't appear to allow much room for those who don't share his vision. Marsh's decision to cut back and forth between the elaborate preparations and the August 7 wire-walk diffuses the suspense somewhat, but no matter: The film runs 95 minutes, and you'll be holding your breath for most of them. leave a comment --Ken Fox