Sunday, January 18, 2009

Review: Man on Wire

Man on Wire (2008, James Marsh)
Man on Wire, in case you have been living under a rock for the past 6 months or so. is the documentary about Phillipe Petit's tight rope walk from one World Trade Center tower to the other early after its construction in 1974. From the birth of the idea, to the planning and finally the execution, we learn about how the entire story played out from the mouth of the lively man himself, as well as his associates.

There is no question that Phillipe is an entertaining person to listen to. He has wit, charm and a highly energetic mannerism. What could have felt a bit dry as a documentary had he not possessed those qualities is instead a gripping and sometimes funny storytelling session. He knows how to tell a good story, when to sound excited, when to sound pensive, disappointed, amused, etc. I enjoyed almost every moment with him. His friends also share some of their recollections, but they seem so plain compared to him that they become unfortunately rather forgettable. This is Phillipe's show and he takes it. The archival photos of him on the wire in New York, walking from one tower to the next, as well as archival videos of him and his friends planning and practicing the coup are all well used and valuable for the film's story to get through to the viewer.

But talking heads and archival footage is not the only medium used to share this tale. There are also re-enactments of various scenes that Petit and his friends are explaining. I can perfectly understand how some documentary fans can become bored with the old 'talking heads' medium. It can become redundant and perhaps a little uninspired at times. However, I can't say that I was enamored with these re-enactments. The purpose of a documentary is to document (I am not getting into that 'subjective/objective warfare), and I felt the re-enactments underwhelmed the story. I failed to see how they added anything to the story. The score that accompanied them was very nice, but the scenes themselves did nothing for me. The mere fact that they were re-enactments and not archival footage actually, if I may be blunt for one short moment, annoyed me. I couldn't tell what the value of having them was.

There was another element that struck me once the film was over. I sat back for a moment, taking everything in and digesting it. And I suddenly asked myself: Why? Why was a 90 minute documentary about this made, especially since much of it was filled with re-enactments? Couldn't this have made an excellent 30 minute segment on Charlie Rose? Despite my fairly young age, I believe that, for one reason or another, I'm kind of old fashioned when it comes to documentaries. It want to have learned something, or to have gained something. Some kind of world I didn't know about, some kind of information that that I can grasp (or attempt to) and find inspiration. Man on Wire came off as a nice story, nothing more. It was a strange reaction because I very much enjoyed spending time with Phillipe, but in the end I think I just didn't need to spend that much time with him if he was only going to tell me how he walked across the two towers in Manhattan.

Unlike with Benjamin Button or Slumdog Millionaire, both of which I didn't love (still liked though) but understood why others loved them, I genuinely don't understand why people have fallen head over heels in love with this film. It's alright, but...

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