Do you have those moments of harmony when things line up perfectly for you? A happy coincidence led my boyfriend to rent the Academy Award-winning documentary Man on Wire just as I had finished reading Colum McCann’s beautiful, National Book Award winning novel Let the Great World Spin. I had never before heard of the French wire walker Philippe Petit, but he is a centerpiece for both the film and the novel.
Petit was born in France and has performed daring feats of high-wire artistry all over the world. His most famous act was to covertly set up a wire and walk between the then under-construction World Trade Center Towers in 1974. It’s been dubbed the “artistic crime of the century.”
I think that if I could pick just one word to describe Man on Wire as a documentary, it would be ebullient. The filmmakers interview Petit, who enthusiastically charts his progress from childhood magician to global wire walker. He’s a ham for the camera, declaring his love for his craft and proclaiming that should he die during the dangerous walk then “what a beautiful death” it would be to die while following his passion. The filmmakers interweave original footage of the group that helped Petit carry out this feat with dramatic reenactments. Viewers get to see their planning meetings and footage of a much younger Petit walking a low wire in a field while his group hangs from it to mimic the bounce and sway of a line strung 110 stories high. The excitement is contagious, and you will feel amazed as you watch it all unfold.
Petit’s walk between the Towers serves as an almost surreal backdrop for Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. McCann’s novel gives readers interconnected stories of New York ranging from housing projects to courtrooms to penthouses, all the while demonstrating the marvel of being in downtown New York that fateful day. McCann says, “when the towers came down in 2001 – the tightrope walk popped out of my memory, one of those eureka moments, and I thought, What a spectacular act of creation, to have a man walking in the sky, as opposed to the act of evil and destruction of the towers disintegrating.” This novel is the perfect complement to watching Man on Wire.
And because Petit is so childlike in his demeanor, projecting such wonder at the world, a children’s book might be the most fitting of tributes. Mordicai Gerstein won the prestigious Caldecott Medal for his 2003 picture book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. The oil and ink illustrations perfectly capture the awe-inspiring event with whimsy and mischief. It’s a fitting homage to Petit and a beautiful book to share with a young friend.