Man on Wire (documentary)

August 1974 was a significant month for Richard Nixon, my mother, and the whimsical French artist Philippe Petit. While Nixon was claiming he’d had nothing to do with the Watergate break-in (then resigning because of it on Aug. 8), and while I was preparing to break out of my mother’s womb (which I accomplished on Aug. 26), Petit was planning an elaborate break-in at the World Trade Center. His goal? To string a tightrope between the towers and walk across it.

Petit’s death-defying stunt earned some media attention at the time and has since been recounted on multiple occasions in multiple venues (including a children’s book). But “Man on Wire,” a riveting new documentary by James Marsh, tells the story more completely and more entertainingly than ever before. We know it didn’t end with Petit falling to his death — he’s alive to tell the story on camera now — but darned if it isn’t still compelling to see the caper laid out.

It feels exactly like a caper, too — a heist, a job, a scheme. Petit, an expert tightrope-walker, juggler, mime, and all-around Crazy French Guy, had to plan the stunt with precision, and “Man on Wire” captures the details as if it were a movie about a bank robbery. Disguises, fake IDs, and other forms of deception were required to gain access to the upper floors of the Twin Towers after hours, and Petit had to enlist the help of several accomplices (including an “inside man”!) to do it.

Marsh, who made the under-seen 2006 drama “The King” and also has some experience in documentaries, plays up the natural suspense of the story without overdoing it. For example, subsequent events have made it surreal to hear of people planning a top-secret assault on the World Trade Center, and it’s amusingly quaint that the mission turns out to be something as harmless as tightrope-walking between them. But Marsh doesn’t draw any overt 9/11 parallels. He merely lays the facts out and lets our minds do the rest.

The director relies on some re-enactments to fill in some of the caper’s details, but he also benefits from the fact that Petit and his buddies liked to film themselves. Thus there is ample footage of the crew planning the stunt, of Petit practicing on a tightrope spanning the appropriate distance (but only a few feet off the ground) at his home in France, and of Petit & Co. using all manner of spying and skulduggery to case the joint beforehand. At one point they posed as journalists in order to gain access to — and take photographs of — the roof of the towers.

Also boosting the film’s entertainment value is Petit himself. Now in his late 50s, he has a showman’s flair and a poet’s knack for expressing himself. You could probably set a video camera on a tripod and film him just telling his story and come away with a pretty enthralling movie, so animated and passionate is he.

In the end, he amusingly sums up the difference between Americans and the French. All the U.S. news reporters kept asking him WHY he had done it — such a frivolous question! “The beauty of it is I had no ‘why,'” he says. It wasn’t an act of protest, and while it was against the law (sort of — trespassing and disorderly conduct were all the city of New York could come up with), it wasn’t malicious or destructive. It was just something to DO, you know?

Marsh also includes footage of the Twin Towers’ construction, which was completed just before Petit’s stunt. Again, for obvious reasons, there’s some emotional resonance in seeing these images now — though, again, and to his credit, Marsh does nothing to underscore it. It merely adds another layer to the drama.

The story is rich with absurd details (one of Petit’s crew members was probably stoned on the night of the break-in: “I smoked pot every day for 35 years, so there’s no reason to think I didn’t smoke that day”), and plenty of gasp-inducing moments where the plan almost fails. Or almost failed, that is. See, it’s such a great story, and so marvelously told, that when you watch it you’re liable to forget it already happened. Be careful, Philippe! Don’t fall!

B+ (1 hr., 34 min.; PG-13, brief nudity and some sexuality in the re-enactments.)