Philippe Petit, New York City, August 7, 1974
The best design movie of 2008 is not about a typeface. It's about a tightrope walker.
Man on Wire, a thrilling new documentary directed by James Marsh, tells the story of Philippe Petit's 1974 high wire walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center. As a 50-year-old designer who spends more time in meetings than at my (imaginary) drawing board, I find it conveniently reassuring to value concept over execution. Man on Wire shows how easy it is to have an idea, and how hard — and sometimes even miraculous — it is to see it realized.
Petit was a teenager in Paris browsing magazines in a dentist's office when he saw a rendering of the then-unbuilt World Trade Center. He was electrified. He was already an obsessed magician, juggler, and high wire artist. To an aspiring tightrope walker, the idea of two 110-story towers, side by side, suggested only one thing. Petit drew a line between the image of the two towers. All that remained now was the execution.
Making the walk happen took years of planning. Petit sums up his own attitude with characteristic aplomb: "It's impossible, that's for sure. So let's start working." He moved to New York and began visiting the construction site, at one point obtaining access to the top of the towers by posing as a French journalist. He made drawings and took photographs. Returning home, he built a full sized model of the WTC roofs in the French countryside to practice the walk. Getting all the necessary equipment up to the tops of the towers was not a one-man job. He recruited a group of confederates, a colorful multinational troupe who offer conflicting present-day memories throughout the film, and who each played a different role in what they privately called the coup. The plan was not just bold but actually rather insane: their solution for the hardest part of the whole scheme, for instance, getting the wire from one tower to the other, a span of nearly 200 feet, was to use a bow and arrow. It worked. Amazingly, it all worked.
Man on Wire's biggest, most satisfying surprise is seeing what Petit actually did when the moment of truth finally arrived and he stepped out into the void. I have to admit, I'd always assumed that he simply edged his way inch by inch across the expanse between the towers, teeth gritted and knuckles white, finally making it with relief to the other side. Was this is what I expected from past exposure to "death defying" circus acts, where the danger is always exaggerated while the crowd holds its collective breath? Or, more likely, was I simply projecting how I — and, admit it, you — would have attacked the challenge?
What happened was quite different. Philippe Petit was out on the wire for more than 45 minutes, crossing back and forth between the towers eight times. One of my favorite characters in the film, Port Authority Police Department Sergeant Charles Daniels, a mustachioed New York 70s cop straight out of Dog Day Afternoon, later described to news cameras what he saw when he was sent up to persuade Petit to surrender:
I observed the tightrope "dancer" — because you couldn't call him a "walker" — approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire. And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle. He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again. Unbelievable, really.
It had taken six years of work and planning to get to that moment, and Philippe Petit never wanted it to end. His greatest dream, unbelievably, had come true. He was 24 years old.
He finally surrendered to the police. In the film he remembers that the only moment he actually feared for his safety was when he was being hustled down the WTC stairs. Back on earth, he was mobbed by reporters, all with the same question: why?
"There is no why, " he said. "When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk."
Like many in the theater, I was crying at this point. It was all so senselessly brave and beautiful. And, of course, there was another reason: although it's never mentioned in the film, you are constantly reminded — especially as you watch Petit and his accomplices plan their audacious but benevolent "crime" — that the World Trade Center towers no longer exist.
When my wife and I first moved to New York in 1980, Dorothy's first job was in World Trade Center Tower Two. Alas, only the twelfth floor. I visited her after she started and we went up to check out the view from the Observation Deck. We never saw Petit there, although in the face of public acclaim after his coup, Petit had been given a lifetime pass. But we saw something else, a little hard to see but clearly visible once you knew what to look for: Petit's autograph, the date of his triumph, and a little drawing of two towers connected by a single line, a replica of the idea that started it all.
Along with so much else, that autograph is gone now. But Philippe Petit is still with us, living in Woodstock, New York, and serving as artist in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. And, thanks to Man on Wire, so is the timeless lesson of the power of a simple idea, beautifully realized.