‘Man on Wire’ testifies to Petit’s passion for life

Posted Feb. 22, 2009, at 7:08 p.m.

On DVD

MAN ON WIRE, directed by James Marsh, 94 minutes, rated PG-13.

At the end of James Marsh’s documentary “Man on Wire,” Philippe Petit, who at age 24 conspired to use a tightrope to walk across the World Trade Center towers eight times on Aug. 7, 1974, allows us into his philosophy of life at age 60.

Nearly 40 years have passed, but not much has changed.

“To me,” he says while walking across a tightrope in his backyard, “it’s so simple — life should be lived on the edge of life. You have to exercise rebellion. To refuse to taper yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge — it’s then that you are living life on a tightrope.”

For Petit, the dream of walking across the Twin Towers began years before when he was in a dentist’s office and first learned of their construction. Given their size and height — not to mention the obvious challenges they offered — his obsession with the towers only grew. Still, before he could tackle them, he needed to wait for their construction to be complete.

In the meantime, he chose other, more modest diversions that would prepare him for what was to come — walking across the twin towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in 1971, for instance, and later, in 1973, flying to Australia, where he walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. All of it was illegal, sure, but as one of Petit’s friends notes, nothing they were doing was malicious, so their conscience was clear.

With seamless ease, Marsh pieces together the story of how Petit was able to enter the guarded towers and pull off the impossible, with Petit himself telling much of the story with an enthusiasm that is infectious. Marsh also interviews the key people who helped Petit on his journey to that historic day. Meanwhile, he intercuts actual film footage and photos of the event, as well as using actors to re-enact what wasn’t chronicled.

It’s an understatement to say that what Petit and company achieved was nothing short of timing and good luck — just wait until you see how they got beyond the guards at the towers — with Petit’s execution of the event itself coming down to something very close to ballet. Watching him walk between towers that are no longer there goes beyond the bittersweet. What actually comes through onscreen is the beauty of those towers, and how Petit incorporated them into his own brand of performance art.

And what a performance. To see him lie down on a cable that was 1,300 feet above the concrete that would kill him should he fall is at once harrowing, exciting and beautiful. But Petit wasn’t content to just lie down. He also knelt, offering onlookers a broad sweep of his arm as if to mark this fragile moment with the bold ex-clamation point it deserved. He was having the time of his life. Death was one misplaced footstep away, but for Petit, the fact that he was facing the possible end of his life entered into the equation in a positive way: “If I die,” he said, “what a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion.”

As I write this on Sunday morning, the movie is up Sunday evening for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, a category I predicted in Friday’s column it would win. Here’s hoping it did. Here’s hoping you see it.

Grade: A

On DVD and Blu-ray disc

AUSTRALIA, directed by Baz Luhrmann, written by Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan, 165 minutes, rated PG-13.

Since there isn’t enough space in this column — let alone in the Land of Oz — to fully explore the new Baz Luhrmann epic, “Australia,” let’s just cut to the chase, visit the circus he offers, and hope for the best.

Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge!”) set out to create one massive film, the first third of which is pure camp (not in a good way), and the last two-thirds of which manage to settle into something reasonably engrossing.

Set in 1939 and extending through to 1942, when Australia was attacked by the Japanese as World War II rolled over that continent, the film stars Nicole Kidman as Lady Sarah Ashley, whose pale, parasol-shielded skin belies the metal that rests beneath. At first, Sarah comes off as a rigid cartoon — her tight-fisted gait, popping eyes and unyielding pluck might leave some wondering whether there’s a tightly wound key stuck in her back, particularly since the performance Kidman delivers in the film’s first 90 minutes suggests that this lady is something of a windup doll let loose in the Outback.

When Sarah is forced to travel to the Northern Territory to take over her husband’s cattle ranch before an evil cattle baron (Bryan Brown) can claim it all, she does so with the reluctant help of a cattle driver named Drover, who is played by Hugh Jackman in a performance that underscores why we need fewer celebrities and more movie stars. Jackman is the latter — he commands the screen with a physical presence that isn’t really mortal, which is part of what being a movie star is all about.

Given Kidman’s own beauty, she assists to that end, with each helping “Australia” in at least being a good-looking film even if structurally, it’s kind of a mess. This is, after all, also the story of Nullah (Brandon Walters), a half-Aboriginal boy ridiculed for his mixed-race status. Sarah and Drover come to love him as their own, but when he’s torn away from them by the government, Luhrmann finds the real meat of his tale, stakes his claim to it, and the movie lifts as the emotions suddenly become real.

Armed with a mother lode of cinematic references, from “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone with the Wind,” “The African Queen” and beyond (and beyond and beyond) to its unflagging energy and its ridiculous scope, this is a movie that doesn’t just want to take over your television screen — it wants to own it. For better and worse, it has a hell of a time doing so, though not without belching and hiccuping along the way.

Grade: C+

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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