Have you seen Man On Wire, the riveting film that took the best documentary Oscar last month?
It’s the story of Frenchman Phillippe Pettit’s daring performance on a high wire strung a quarter-mile high between the roofs of the World Trade Center. Every detail of the clandestine operation is revealed in a style worthy of a Hollywood heist movie. And a heist it was, in its own quirky, artsy way.
Pettit, whose exploit came the week before his 25th birthday on Aug. 7, 1974, was obviously obsessed with his mission, which could have been tripped up a dozen times by the myriad problems inherent with surreptitiously delivering a 450-pound cable to the top of a tightly secured 110-story building and sufficiently securing it to the top of another building 140 feet away without being discovered.
As fascinating as the nuts and bolts details of this how-they-dunnit flick are, equally fascinating are the relationships among the six accomplices who made Pettit’s feat possible despite the long odds.
Pettit’s best friend and lover were nearly as passionate about Pettit’s quest as he was, but the rest needed convincing. But, as accomplice Barry Greenhouse, explains, "Philippe just draws you into his world." That’s even more impressive when you learn that Pettit later admitted that chances of pulling off “Le Coup” were “less than zero.”
But pull it off they did, with Pettit making at least a half-dozen high-wire trips between the towers, teasing police at either end by pivoting just short of their grasp, lying down for a rest and dancing 1,350 feet above the ground on a slender strand of cable.
A bit of rain and word from a friend that police were prepared to “take him out” eventually halted the nearly hour-long “artistic crime of the century.” Although Pettit was arrested, the charges were later dropped and he became a bona fide celebrity.
As President Nixon left the White House after resigning the next day, he is said to have muttered, “I wish I had the publicity that Frenchman had.”
That publicity came with a cost. Although Pettit rejected virtually every offer that would have reaped millions in the wake of his stunt, he became estranged from the people who had made it possible – his support team. It took him nearly 30 years to write the book that was the basis for Man On Wire.
Have you ever had a passion for anything that came close to matching Pettit’s? Did you know anyone who did? How did that passion affect your relationships? While Pettit’s story is extraordinary, the personal outcome isn’t all that unusual. Celebrity, even the fleeting kind, has the potential of altering a person’s life forever.
Has it happened in your family?
Flickr photo courtesy of freewater.