At the age of 17 Philippe Petit is sitting in his dentist’s office reading a magazine. He sees a picture of an architect’s rendering of the Twin Towers, and long before they are completed he begins to think: they will be the tallest structures in the world. And he begins to feel a connection: a dream of desire, of destiny, and he tears out the page and keeps it.
Now Philippe becomes a street entertainer, riding a unicycle or walking on a wire setup that is portable and can be assembled in a park, putting him about 15 feet above the ground.
Paris, 1971 – Philippe walks on a wire stretched between the two towers of the western facade of Notre Dame Cathedral. He walks back and forth, and then with his balance bar he lies down on the wire.
Sydney, 1973 – Philippe walks on a wire stretched over a bridge, and causes a huge traffic backup. He does the same act as before, walking back and forth multiple times and then lying down on the wire. He is arrested.
Back in Paris Philippe learns that the towers are built. The top floors are still being finished, but a walk from one tower to the other is possible. He puts together a team, and they begin to plan. The team members are assigned other names because of the arrest in Sydney. Concerning this time, David, AKA Donald, says, “We met with Petit, and I had a friend named Alan Wellner, who I went to high school with. He was always up for an adventure. Always.” And Alan, AKA Albert, says, “He was pitching it. He was presenting it. He was desperately proposing it, in a way that you would, you know, sell a timeshare or something. I knew he was a nut, or a conman or something. But he seemed harmless enough. I didn’t really take it seriously at this point.”
Philippe’s walk is planned for May 30, 1974, but circumstances force a postponement to August 7. Team members disguised as workmen carry the equipment, the wire, the anchors, the supports and connections needed, everything, upstairs to the top floor (they use the elevator as far as it goes, which is NOT to the top). Then one suspenseful, scary night, after anchoring the wire at one end, they try to get the loose end of the wire across the chasm to be fastened to the other tower.
The distance between the towers is 200 feet. The towers are 110 flights, about 1350 feet high. Philippe performs for about 45 minutes. Then he is arrested. The judge sentences him to perform in the city’s parks for its children.
This documentary uses news footage, interviews, and recreations to tell the story. It is based on Petit’s book “To Reach the Clouds”, and is directed by James Marsh. It is a truly thrilling tale of obsession and derring-do. And I have used present tense throughout this review because I still feel the loss of the towers very keenly, and want, even if just for a moment, to have them back.