Monday, August 25, 2008

To dream the impossible dream

A young injured French boy sits in a doctor's office reading a magazine and sees an article about architects and designers creating what will become the World Trade Center towers. So excited by this discovery the boy neglects his injury and races home with excitement. At this moment tumbler/sidewalk entertainer/juggler and high-wire walker Phillippe Petit knew his life's dream, to walk a tightrope between the WTC towers. It is this goal that is the subject of the breathtakingly wonderful documentary currently inhabiting indie theaters across the country. By turns awe-inspiring, hilarious, thrilling, frightening and thought-provoking as anything in theaters this summer. Director James Marsh deftly mixes archival footage, re-enactments, talking head style interviews and still photos to tell this story. Though the outcome is never really in question as Petit is alive, well and talking to us throughout , the film manages to thrill and make audience members gasp with the intricate heist-like plot of Petit and his fellow conspirators to reach the top of the towers and attempt the illegal but ultimately "harmless" (to everyone but Petit I suppose) act.

The film manages to gracefully never dip into a dull presentation of what is ultimately a very simple and straightforward plot by its excellent use of Phillipe Petit. His boundless enthusiasm, his charmingly accented English, his child-like sense of wonder make for a exceedingly compelling lead. One overlooks his borderline insanity or potentially obnoxious level of self-importance because you've simply never seen anyone quite like him before. His wacky crew of conspirators are fairly compelling too. While hardly the attractive, slick operators of the Ocean gang, this eclectic group's shagginess works in the movies favor as it forces the viewer to ponder how on Earth could this group have pulled it off.

Surprisingly for a film about the WTC, 9/11 is never explicitly mentioned though it does underscore and cast a pall on the proceedings. There is a moment where Petit talks about looking down because he would (and really by extension no one would or could) ever see from that particular angle again. This moment goes a long way to conveying the feeling and provide the catharsis curious and invested viewers may need.
The film takes great pride in pointing out the poetry and beauty that occurs when something random and wondrous happens in the midst of the mundane. Petit's walking, seemingly on air thousands of feet in the air may not sound like much, but to actually witness it is truly awe-inspiring. In finding the wrinkles in unexpected places in he world (like say several thousand feet above one's head) Marsh and his crew have created a mini-masterpiece that should have viewers looking at their world with more intrigued and excited eyes.

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