Man on Wire (2008)
Directed by James Marsh

Genre and Length
Documentary film – 94 minutes

Grade Level
This is appropriate for an eleventh or twelfth grade Language Arts classroom

Relevant Common Core Standards for Grades 11-12
  • Conducting complex analysis of how two or more central ideas interact and build on one another (CC.11-12.R.I.2)
  • Understanding the development of themes and central ideas over the course of a text (CC.11-12.R.I.2)
  • Developing narratives using real and imagined experiences (CC.11-12.W.3)
  • Using digital media needs to enhance the understanding of evidence and reasoning and to add interest. (CC.11-12.SL.5)

The film depicts the breath-taking story of Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. With the use of archival footage, still photographs, reenactments, and present-day interviews, this documentary takes the audience on an adventure to the top of the world and into the deepest part of the human soul. James Marsh skillfully weaves the complex perspectives of Philippe and his nine accomplices to take the audience on a wild ride across both time and place. Not only do the viewers experience the tense moments during the day of Philippe’s harrowing 45-minute walk, but they also have the pleasure of looking back in time to better understand the details of the characters’ pasts. By presenting the complete story out of chronological order, Marsh creates suspense within the viewers while also painting a rich picture of the people and places within the timeframe of the story. By the end of the film, Philippe’s tightrope walk has catapulted him and his friends into stardom, but the audience is forced to question the importance of everything that has just happened, leading to the ultimate question, “What is the purpose of it all.” Man on Wire truly has everything a viewer could ever want in a film—a fascinating character study, gripping action, indescribable beauty, and mind-bending imagination.

Thematic and Textual Connections
Man on Wire deals with many thought-provoking themes that can both facilitate students’ critical thinking as well as help them connect with other works of classic literature with similar thematic concerns. Fate is a recurring theme throughout this film. From the moment Philippe saw the images of the Twin Towers in a French magazine—even before they were constructed—he knew this was his destiny; that he was born to tightrope walk between them. Philippe devoted all of his time and resources into accomplishing his dream of tightrope walking between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. I am reminded of John Milton as I watch Philippe’s story. Like Philippe, Milton had the indescribable feeling that it was his destiny to write the great English epic poem, and he devoted his entire life preparing for his crowning achievement. Man on Wire also brings up the theme of ethics and morality. The audience is left questioning the film in its entirety. Should we view Philippe positively or negatively? Was Philippe right for breaking the law? Is Philippe a hero? Were Philippe’s actions meaningless? As an immediate reaction to the film, I think most students would view Philippe as a triumphant figure (I sure did); however, if the students dig deeper into some philosophical and psychological issues relating to the film and its characters, I know that many students would be forced to challenge their beliefs and use higher level critical thinking skills to come to a well-thought-out opinion.
In a sense, this is a coming of age film. Philippe didn’t fit into the “traditional” mold of society, and he used tightrope walking as a way to literally and figuratively rise above the norm and find his unique identity. With this in mind, Man on Wire would pair nicely with J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. As a character study, students could use Philippe as a means to better connect with the fictitious character of Holden Caulfield. Both characters share the innocent idealistic nature that puts them at odds with “reality” as they struggle to find their place in the world.
One could also use Man on Wire as a way to teach and discuss the tradition of oral storytelling. This would pair nicely, for instance, with a unit on Native American or African American slave narratives, as well as various pieces of World Literature.
Lastly, Man on Wire could be used to teach the genres of expressionism and surrealism. Many of the reenactments are shot in an expressionistic style similar to the German expressionist films of the early 20th century (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, for example). The visual nature of film could help students better grasp the complex literary genres of expressionism and surrealism.

Strengths and Unique Characteristics of the Film
The fact that the filmmakers did not have any footage of the actually event itself meant that they had to be creative in capturing the audience’s attention, and they did so entirely through interviews with Philippe and his accomplices. This could raise some interesting questions about truth in documentary films. How true is this film to the actual event? Might have any of the “storytellers” embellished the truth? How and why do oral stories change over time? Should we distrust many popular stories of our past history because they were passed down from generation to generation orally? This topic of truth could help teachers discuss the power of editing as a means of both establishing and manipulating the truth. Students must be aware of the various types of filmmaking techniques so they can apply them to all forms of media (journalism, advertising, brand logos, etc.) to become critical thinkers and empowered consumers.

Possible Objections
Although Man on Wire holds a PG-13 rating, which is quite suitable for upper high school students, possible objections could arise due to some sexuality and nudity, and drug reference. One of the interviewees mentions smoking marijuana, which has no impact on the film besides comedic effect, and there is a shot of a man and a woman’s nude backsides, which lasts only a few seconds and can be easily fast forwarded past.

  • 2009 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary
  • 2008 BSFC Award for Best Documentary
  • 2008 CFCA Award for Best Documentary
  • 2008 British Independent Film Award for Best British Documentary
  • 2008 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award for World Cinema – Documentary
  • 2008 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema – Documentary
  • 2008 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards for Best Documentary/Non-Fiction Film
  • 2008 New York Film Critics Circle Awards for Best Non-Fiction Film
  • 2008 Satellite Awards for Best Motion Picture, Documentary
  • 2008 Southeastern Film Critics Association Awards for Best Documentary
  • 2008 Toronto Film Critics Association Awards for Best Documentary

Previewing Activities
  1. Conduct research on the actual event in 1974 when Philippe Petit walked on a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Students should familiarize themselves with the story from as many different perspectives as possible so they can critically engage with Philippe himself without becoming too enthralled with his captivating personality.
  2. Have the students pair up and interview each other about their past experiences. Students should focus on life-changing moments, funny/exciting/frightening/etc. first-hand encounters, or mythologized tales passed down through their families (This will fit into the closing activity #1 after viewing the film).
  3. Freewrite Prompts:
- I have a dream…
- Since the moment I was born, it is my destiny to…
- I would risk everything, including my own life, to…

Viewing Day #1: 0:00:00-0:34:30
  • Begins with the opening titles
  • Ends with Philippe on crutches after stepping on a nail at the construction site

The beginning of the film throws the audience head first into the story and quickly establishes the suspenseful tone and the non-chronological plotline. The audience learns about the characters and is introduced to the background story about how Philippe pulled off this seemingly impossible plan.

Discussion Questions
  1. Why does the filmmaker show a split screen of the Twin Towers being constructed and Philippe as a young child?
  2. How does the filmmaker establish the various characters? Think about how each one is introduced to the story.
  3. Philippe obviously breaks the law by tightrope walking on public buildings, but is he wrong for doing so? Are all rules created equal, or is there a hierarchy of importance when it comes to the “rules” of life?

Viewing Day #2: 0:34:31-1:00:50
  • Begins with the windy conditions on top of the towers
  • Ends with Jean-Louis expressing his distrust of Albert

The middle of the film illustrates remarkable cunning and resilience of Philippe as he hurdles past challenges and plans out the logistics of his strategy. The character relationships become increasingly rich as the plotline’s complexity amplifies with each surprising twist and turn.

Discussion Questions
  1. Philippe says, “If you want something, nothing is impossible.” Do you agree with this statement? Think about the practical implications of this idea. Is this an idealization or can people honestly live by this motto?
  2. Have you ever encountered anything in your life that was well beyond your capabilities? If so, how did you react to this situation? Did you give up? Did you struggle? Did you succeed?
  3. Philippe says, “I need absolute freedom.” Is Philippe selfish or determined? Philippe is willing to risk his own life to accomplish his dream, but he doesn’t appear to think about the ramifications of his actions on his friends and family. Is it possible to balance one’s personal success with one’s commitment to other people?

Viewing Day #3: 1:00:51-1:34:00
  • Begins with Philippe and Jean François emerging from under the blanket
  • Ends with the closing credits

The film continues to pick up pace as Philippe and his team race to beat the clock and avoid detection as they struggle to secure the wire between the towers. Interestingly, the climax of the film serves as the most tranquil segment of the story. Philippe’s grace and beauty captivates both the audience and the other characters of the film, and the story quickly wraps up after Philippe gains fame and recognition for his stunt.

Discussion Questions
  1. It’s safe to say that Philippe was extremely lucky to have been able to pull off this seemingly impossible act. Whenever something went wrong, it seemed as if an unseen, miraculous force stepped in to save the day. In your opinion, what role does luck play into our successes? How much of our actions are determined by our control and how much is controlled by chance?
  2. How has your opinion about Philippe changed or remained the same since you were first introduced to him at the beginning of the film? What has Philippe done or said to influence the way you see his character? Is Philippe noble and honorable, or is he a manipulative trickster? Would you trust Philippe?
  3. Philippe stepped outside the mundane flow of everyday life and captivated the public’s attention. Why do you think others who break the so-called rules of both society and nature are so mesmerizing? I’m reminded of people like Evel Knievel, Johnny Knoxville, and Jackie Chan (people who perform outrageous stunts and, in doing so, win immense approval by the public). Why do we love people who execute risky stunts? Does this fascination go beyond simple entertainment?

Closing Questions/Activities
  1. Multigenre Life Story Project:
Man on Wire does a wonderful job of telling a simple story (man walks on a wire) in such a captivating way, and the filmmakers do this by utilizing various expressive mediums, including archival footage, still photographs, music, interviews, narration, and dramatic recreations. Look at your lists of stories you formed during the previewing interview activity. Choose one story that you want to share with others. Using at least 4 different mediums, tell your unique story. Think about the idea of truth as you recreate these past events. What will you highlight? What will you diminish or even leave out completely? Will this be a realistic representation of the past, or more of an artistic version?
  1. Mock Debate:
Should Philippe Petit be lionized or criticized?
Divide the class into two groups and have the students conduct a structured debate on this question. This is an abstract question without clear right or wrong answers, which will force students to support all of their beliefs. Students must look at the film as a whole in order to support their side of the argument. Students should also go beyond the primary text for support, researching information about Philippe that wasn’t exhibited during the film. Students must also think about the opposing argument so as to be able to counter it during the debate. Within each group, students will be divided into subgroups representing specific job descriptions (leaders, researchers, scribes, fact checkers etc.).