The Artistic Crime of the Century

For Philippe Petit, the French wirewalker who shocked and charmed the world when he took to the skies on Aug. 7, 1974, to walk a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, even the words "joy" and "elation" barely describe the act.

He crossed not once, but eight times, each one different, he says, with spectators and police gathering in awe to watch. For 45 minutes the impish Frenchman with sandy red hair smiled, sat, lay down, knelt, saluted and laughed while out on the wire -- all the while gleefully taunting the waiting policeman.

"It was an immense, profound pleasure," he told, over hot chocolate and croissants last week in New York. "It's not what you Americans call 'fun,'" he added, a bit of mischievous disdain in his voice.

"Meeting the Gods" is how he refers to it. "I'm nonreligious," he added. But the combination of the "Twin Towers, my balancing pole, the police, the onlookers, it was a sacred presence, an amazing piece of theater."

And one that was bound to make a great film. For years, Petit, now 58, resisted. "I'd say 'no' almost automatically. 'Sign here' [they'd say], make a lot of money, go to the Hollywood premiere. I was afraid I'd lose control. I was very glad to say no to all those offers. I wanted to wait until things were more meaningful. What was important was the exchange, the collaboration," he said.

Two years ago, Petit agreed to work on a documentary with James Marsh, a director who had made films on Elvis Presley, Marvin Gaye and Velvet Underground member John Cale.

Their film, "Man on Wire," opened in New York on Friday, and over the weekend posted the highest earnings for any documentary to open this year. On a per-screen average, it even surpassed "The Dark Knight" ($25,696 versus $17,000). The New York opening is to be followed by a national rollout in August.

Planning the Walk

"I have the mind of a criminal" was the first thing Petit told Marsh when they met in summer 2006, Marsh wrote in a director's statement. "He then went on to show me how he could kill a man with a copy of People magazine and, before we parted, he picked my pocket."

Within months Petit had "prepared this great document, images and thoughts and provocations, drawings, ideas, cuttings," Marsh told

That document, done in a "big messy way," said Petit, provided "a nice trampoline to start talking."

The film features interviews with Petit, who now lives in upstate New York, serves as an artist-in-residence at St. John the Divine church in New York City and is still as wiry and mischievous (if a bit more weathered than) as he was 34 years ago.

A lucky break came when Marsh discovered that lots of footage existed from 34 years ago of the actual planning. Petit's World Trade Center Association -- marked by a hand-lettered sign -- was headquartered in a field in France, where he and his accomplices would conduct trial-and-error experiments with a wire several feet off the ground and retreat indoors to discuss problems of architectural engineering.

"Man on Wire" is plotted like a "heist" film, said Marsh -- quite fitting, he surmised, for "the artistic crime of the century." There's no asking "why" of Petit. The film is about the day-to-day planning, Marsh said, "the spirit of the undertaking, with very specific things like, 'How are we going to get the wire across?'"

The planners were initially a group of 10; at the end there were three. Many are interviewed in the film.

There's Barry Greenhouse, an American who sports a handlebar mustache, conducts himself like an impresario and was the "inside man." He first met Petit when he bumped into him in the World Trade Center's south tower's lobby -- Greenhouse worked on the 82nd floor -- but he had seen Petit juggling on a Parisian street a year earlier. Greenhouse provided the fake IDs for Petit and the accomplices to enter the building on the night of Aug. 6.

Also interviewed in the film are a few who dropped out because they didn't want to see their friend, Philippe, die. But as Annie Allix, his then-girlfriend points out, "He couldn't go on living if he didn't try to conquer those towers ... it was as if they had been built specifically for him."

Then And Now

It was August 1974: Richard Nixon would resign over Watergate a day after Petit's walk; New York was facing serious fiscal problems; and a motley crew of Frenchmen passed through Kennedy International Airport with ropes, knives, a bow and arrow (to get the wire from one tower to the other), and shackles.

And, of course, the Twin Towers were standing. There is no mention of their collapse in "Man on Wire." Acknowledging that the Sept. 11 attack "frames the story in a different way," Marsh said it would have been "wrong to inject it." It's the events of 34 years ago that are important to the story.

"I had dreamed, I had toiled, I was an impatient child finally getting what I wanted," recalled Petit of the day he stepped out onto the wire to cross the towers, to realize a dream he first had in 1968, at the age of 18, when he saw an architectural drawing of the proposed buildings in a newspaper. "I had these elaborate hopes and dreams and thoughts about illegally landing on top of this magnificent structure."

When they were attacked, he said, "I had shock and disbelief. Those towers that were alive in me were pulled out too."