"There is no 'why,'" Philippe Petit says he told the Port Authority policemen who questioned him following his 45-minute promenade on a high wire suspended between the towers of the World Trade Center on the morning of August 7, 1974. At other times he's explained, "When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk." But perhaps the best answer to the inevitable "whys" elicited by Petit's feat is one more typically associated with the licking habits of male dogs: He did it because he could.
Petit's stunt, which was roughly equal parts audacity, artistry, and sheer insanity, is the subject of a surprisingly powerful new documentary, James Marsh's Man on Wire. It's a rare tale of dangerous obsession rapturously fulfilled, a reminder that even the most quixotic of undertakings can knock over a windmill now and then.
The story begins in 1968 in a dentist's office in Paris. It was there that Petit, a teenage street juggler with a toothache, stumbled upon a newspaper article (which he subsequently emancipated from its newspaper) about two great towers that were going to be built in lower Manhattan. From that moment he was obsessed, teaching himself to wire walk at a farm in rural France, collecting sundry accomplices, performing reconnaissance missions to the not-yet-completed towers, and staging a pair of daring warm-ups: a high-wire dance between the bell towers of Notre Dame in 1971 and one amid the pylons of the Sydney Harbor Bridge in 1973.
Man on Wire tells this tale through archival footage and photos, interviews with Petit's friends and confederates, and running commentary from Petit himself, an engaging Gallic babbler still shy of 60 whose English is frequently overrun by his enthusiasm. There are modern reenactments throughout, but they are short and stylized enough to be snuck in without breaking the mood. The film is nicely scored, too, and features an eclectic soundtrack including Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King," Walter Murphy's "A Fifth of Beethoven," and, most evocatively, Satie's Gymnopedie No. 1. A less wise choice was Marsh's decision to tell the story out of sequence, a flourish presumably intended to heighten the suspense that instead mostly introduces confusion.
But the film ends, as it must, with the stunt itself: The two teams who eluded security to arrive on the nighttime rooftops of both towers lugging hundreds of pounds of equipment; the arrow shot 200 feet from one tower to the other, bearing a monofilament line; the successively larger strings and ropes pulled across the void, culminating with a heavy, three-quarter-inch wire that could be anchored at each end and held (relatively) stable in the elevated winds with additional cables. And all of it done so that once the sun rose on that summer morning, Petit, six days shy of his 25th birthday, could bestride New York City like no one before or since. Marsh conjures the moment with breathtaking immediacy, using photos of Petit aloft, his grin nearly as wide as his balancing pole, and awed commentary both contemporaneous (the mesmerized police sergeant who explained, "Everybody was spellbound in the watching of it") and current (Petit's then-girlfriend, who watched from the ground 1,350 feet below, recalls, "It was like he was walking on a cloud").
The conclusion is bittersweet, though, as Petit's exploit, and the attendant fame and ego, eventually divided him from his closest friends and accomplices. His stunt was truly an ending, not a beginning, and everyone involved seems to have understood that the future would never again hold anything quite so glorious. It's a tone that's appropriate, even necessary, because at its core this is a film about not only a day in August 1974, but also another in September 2001. Though Marsh makes no reference to 9/11, it's present in every frame, a somber counterpoint to Petit's merry caper.
The time and place that Man on Wire capture so indelibly are both gone forever. It is not merely that it would be impossible to accomplish a feat like Petit's today; it would be almost impossible even to conceive it. Our dreams have grown narrower and our fears wider, and risking so much (and finding so many others willing to share the risk) for a few brief moments of transcendence feels beyond imagining. The only people who plot so long and so deep today, it seems, are those with lethal intentions.
The Twin Towers were boxy, unlovely constructions that intrigued America's enemies more than they ever did most Americans. After Petit, the next-most-famous effort to glamorize the buildings probably took place when Dino De Laurentiis perched his unlucky Kong atop them in 1976. Now, they loom far larger in absence than they ever did while standing. Man on Wire is a reminder that it was not always thus, that this setting of national tragedy once beheld a moment of human triumph.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.