There are people in the world who believe that film and television fall into two distinct camps: on one side is the noble documentary and its upstart sibling the reality show. On the other side there’s all that made-up stuff. But as a fiction writer who worked for years in factual TV, I know that the best documentaries mimic fictional story structures. And nowhere is this more obvious than Man On Wire, which is a heist movie pure and simple.
To call it a documentary is to do a disservice to one of the most exciting, funny and moving films of the year. Yes, it recounts a real event with the testimony of everyone who participated in it, backed up by a thankfully rich supply of stills and film footage. But what it achieves is way beyond the traditional confines of documentary, and it’s all down to how it apes one of the most popular fictional genres.
Philippe Petit is the French high-wire artist who achieved global fame on 7 August 1974 when he broke into the South Tower of the World Trade Centre, sneaked up to the rooftop undetected, and suspended a cable across to the North Tower. At 7.15 in the morning he looked down at the quarter-mile abyss below and stepped off the South Tower, onto the cable, into history.
It was a ‘heist’ six years in the planning, and performed with the help of a colourful supporting cast who, luckily for us, had the foresight to document every step of the way with photos and film footage, way before the advent of mass market video cameras.
As a screenwriter, though, what interests me most about this film is how it utilises elements of the heist genre to achieve its effect.
I seem to be citing him every week, but if you’re talking about genre it’s now impossible to ignore Blake Snyder and his 10 Story Types. He would class Man on Wire firmly as a Golden Fleece story type. It has a road, a team and a prize. And it sits very comfortably in the ‘Caper Fleece‘ sub-section with movies like Topkapi, The Italian Job and Ocean’s Eleven.
Leading the team is a man with a mission, an obsessive who will risk everything and everybody to achieve the ‘fleece’. Petit is a Jason, a Charlie Croker, a Danny Ocean. He dreams up the caper when he sees an artist’s impression of the Twin Towers two years before they are constructed, and knows instantly that this will be his ultimate wire walk. It is as if they are being built solely for him to perform this act.
He assembles a team of accomplices who share his vision, each with a specific skill, each with a fatal flaw (the permanently stoned one is a particular highlight). They plan out their operation meticulously and put it to work, and everything that can go wrong does go wrong.
In the end, it’s a miracle that they pull off the job… but of course, the job turns out to be not what they all expected. In stories like this the prize is never really the prize. They always discover something else, something about themselves. And when Petit steps out onto that wire, something happens that none of them expected. They realise they have helped create not a mere stunt but a work of art.
Even thirty-four years later, the emotion for those who took part is overwhelming. They break down in tears just at the tantalising moment of trying to define what it was they created.
It is a beautiful and moving documentary, for sure. But for me Man on Wire stands as one of the most entertaining movies of the year, and possibly the greatest heist movie ever.