High Art


It’s not so much that I’m afraid of heights. It’s the involuntary anticipation of falling that bothers me. The prospect of losing balance from a high perch brings on the heebie-jeebies, a physical manifestation of falling. My palms sweat. An army of goose bumps slide from the top of my head, poised to meet waves of prickly nerve endings rising from below. Like draftees inducted into a war they do not want to fight, these inner nerve soldiers meet somewhere in my core, swirling in time and prepared for battle.

When I visited Chicago and the Sears Tower Skydeck observation deck on the 103rd floor, I was inflicted with a ghastly case of these infamous heebie-jeebies. When the wind blows, the tower sways, a tangible, terrible reminder, that falling is always possible. What goes up, must come down.

Contrast my perspective with that of Frenchman Philippe Petit, the star of Man on Wire. Replace my fearful dread with Petit’s unabashed joy and we begin to understand something about why this man will achieve his goal. Notwithstanding the hurdles and setbacks, on the morning of August 7, 1974, Petit did it. With the focused concentration of an eagle stalking its prey, Petit walked, lay down, knelt, juggled, and ran confidently between the two towers of the World Trade Center.

As a growing boy, Petit loved to climb. The higher, the better. Trees were his domain. In the waiting room of a dentist’s office, Petit browsed a magazine article about the construction of The World Trade Center in New York City. An artist’s finished rendition of the barely started project provided a flash of inspiration. Surreptitiously, Petit swiped the picture and carried it home. This would not be the first time that Petit broke rules to further his fanciful vision.

Man on Wire is about a dream. It’s about a man so ardent about following his dream that nothing will sway him. His passion is so scaldingly fierce, that he easily recruits a group of disciples to assist him in preparing and implementing his vision. He so effectively communicates his dream, that they do not hesitate to follow, though all of the team will not stay to share in achievement of the goal.

Despite its documentary format, director James Marsh uses considerable creativity in wiring this picture for tension, intrigue, and beauty. It plays like a thriller, though we don’t witness wild car crashes or shaky hand-held cameras filming bad guys on the run. The cinematic pressure rises out of skillful editing and masterful story telling.

We witness painstakingly calculated plans which sometimes go awry. Just when we anticipate that we are close to witnessing the fulfillment of Petit’s dream, something happens to prevent the plan from going forward, at least in the way in which it was conceived. So close, and yet so far; what goes up, must come down.

Petit fancies himself as a sort of low-grade criminal. He’s supremely confident, but not quite brash. When he and his team move to New York City, they spend their leisure time watching cop and robber TV shows. His girl friend—the encourager—explains that Petit was raised by strict parents, insisting on fastidious, no nonsense behavior from young Philippe. As we get to know this man, witnessing the joy with which he practices his craft and the naughty twinkle in his eye, we begin to sense that bending the rules—taking certain liberties—is part of his character and motivation.

Interviews with the present day versions of those that participated are edited next to well constructed reenactments, striking stills, and snippets of video preserved from the 70s, resulting in a compellingly realistic collage of this wonderful story.

Attempting to articulate why such a preposterously bizarre act—walking a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center—captures my heart is as fruitless as Petit trying to explain why he did it in the first place. If Petit were a wacko, that would be an easy explanation; but he’s not. He’s remarkably lucid; a man that spins a tale with the same level of skill that he employs in walking tightropes. No. The whys and wherefores slip away, like the residue of a once vivid dream. This artful event transcends words.

Why described it as art? Well first, it was beautiful. Video doesn’t exist of the New York episode, but there is video of some earlier practice rounds, one of which was between the towers of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. And it’s strikingly stunning. The still photographs used in the film frame this man, dressed in black from shoulder to toe, as a silhouette contrasting with the slate blue sky.

Further, it’s a representation of possibility. What could each one of us do—the world might say—if only we could lasso the focused intensity required, like Philippe Petit? Switchfoot sang, “We were meant to live for so much more, have we lost ourselves?” Counter intuitively, believers learn that to become new men (and women), we must lose ourselves.

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.   Ephesians 4:22-24

Philippe Petit’s singular act is poetically beautiful because of what it tells us about ourselves and our lives: who we are, and for what we were created. We hear it, not with the spoken word, but with language of the heart. It’s like a microcosm of a life well lived.

“If I die, what a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion.”

“The fact that wire walking is framed by death is great because you have to take it very seriously.”

“To me, it’s really so simple, that life should be lived on the edge. You have to exercise rebellion. To refuse to tape yourself to the rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge. Then you will live your life on the tightrope.”

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. John 10:10 (New International Version)


  1. josh

    the thought of being on a tight rope spanning the distance between the towers of the World Trade Center is one of the most unpleasant ideas that has ever entered my brain… Insanity I say!

    this was the kind of story that was cool to read about in short, but it’s definitely not the kind of thing I could watch a documentary about. Freakin heights, I hate ’em…

  2. Aaron Roughton

    This is an amazing movie. And I don’t mean that I’d like to watch it again and again, but it amazed me while I was watching it. It’s hard to figure out how something with a determined positive outcome can still have you sitting on the edge of your seat with clammy hands. I wasn’t really able to put why I liked it into words. Thanks for speaking on my behalf, Curt. Great review as always.

  3. Thomas McKenzie

    I loved Man on Wire. One of my top movies of 2008, and I am pulling for it to receive the Oscar. Unlike Aaron, I would watch it again and again. In fact, I did. Three times in a couple of days. I loved spending time with Petit. My nine-year old, who I allowed to watch part of it, likes to quote him saying “why? it is art! there is no ‘why'”

    I highly recommend this film. It is pure joy.

  4. Curt McLey


    If you are a Netflix member and wish to see this film, note that it is available as an instant viewing choice, at least as of today. That means that you can watch it on your computer (or TV, if you have the enabling hardware) for no additional charge. And I forgot to mention that it has been nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary Feature category. Encounters at the End of the World, another film we’ve discussed in The Rabbit Room, is nominated in the same category.

    Josh – Come on, do it. Heebie-jeebies can be fun. 🙂

    Aaron – I watched it twice, primarily because I was writing the review, but it will be a long time before I ever see it again. Those shots of Petit looking over the edge of one of the towers drives me nuts. Thanks for your supportive words.

  5. becky

    I got those goose bumps and heebie-jeebies you talked about just reading your description. Are you sure this isn’t a horror flick? I love the quotes, but I don’t know if I could watch the film without being sedated.

  6. Matt Conner

    Seriously, this is a beautiful film full of so much profound truth, substance and well beauty (even though I already said the descriptor of Beautiful).

    This isn’t about heights or whatever, so please don’t think it’s some first-person roller coaster ride or something intended to make you feel that. This was easily one of my favorite movies of 2008 (The Wrestler being my favorite) and should definitely be made a priority.

  7. Curt McLey


    Thomas – Reading that you saw this film three times in a short period of time gets me jazzed up. When I watch an indie film that “rings all bells inside of me,” I’m never sure if it’s “just me.” These kinds of films don’t often have big audiences, so reading feedback like what you wrote is always a thrill.

    “It tis art, there is no why!” I love it.

    Tony – Thanks for being so engaged in our discussions here. It’s a pleasure to have you here.

    Becky – Forgive me, but I am so happy that you felt a case of heebie-jeebies. I hate to admit it, but I think that’s what I might have been going for. I just hope it doesn’t prevent you from seeing the movie someday.

    Matt (Tag Team Partner) – I thought about you when I watched this, thinking that you might enjoy it.

    I think the best thing I took from this film is that life should be lived with passion. Passion is something that can easily be buried by defense mechanisms: getting hurt, fear of failure, fear of success, apathy, anger, and on and on. The thief would kill and destroy if allowed, but with our eyes on the Object of our passion, we will live life in full measure.

  8. josh

    Yea i guess the heebie jeebies can be fun now and then, but here’s the deal: if i watch a movie about a dude walking on tight ropes millions of miles in the air it’ll make me have that dream where you think you’re falling and you jump really big and wake yourself up in the middle of the night. I absolutely hate those stupid dreams that make me jump like that.

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