It's 1974 and foreigners are breaking into the World Trade Center. They're sneaking up the stairs to the rooftop, carrying ominous-looking lengths of cable. Soon, they'll have crept past the guards, into the freight elevator, and up onto the roof where they will probably kill a man named Philippe Petit.
Of course, this was all Philippe's idea to begin with.
Director James Marsh has put together what may be the perfect memorial to the pointless and brutal destruction of New York's twin towers in 2001: Man on Wire, a documentary about Petit, a charismatic and not-quite-sane French "wirewalker" whose dream it is to perform on a length of cable stretched between the north and south towers.
The doc, rated PG-13 for nudity during a goofy sex scene near the film's end, is almost a heist film for its first half-hour: Philippe and his friends are breaking into the tower! They're going to be caught! They're escaping! But after a little while, the film takes a sharp and welcome left turn, following Philippe's whimsical and ultimately heartbreaking obsession with performing ever bigger, ever more-dangerous stunts. He walks between pylons on the Sydney Harbour Bridge; he walks between the towers of Notre Dame; he gets arrested a lot.
Through it all, Marsh examines his relationships with his devoted friends, especially his girlfriend Annie and his partner (and enabler) Jean-Louis, who breaks down crying when he remembers how close Philippe came to death. Philippe has fans everywhere-American businessmen charmed into helping him, as well as his crew of followers who watch anxiously as Philippe practices in a field in France. They can't quite describe what draws them to Philippe except to say that when he was performing, in Annie's words, "C'etait extraordinaire."
"It was extraordinary."