From photographs taken at street level it looked as if he was walking on air.
Man on Wire, James Marsh's heart-stopping, knee-buckling and transcendent account of how on Aug. 7, 1974, French acrobat Philippe Petit strung a cable between New York's twin towers, danced on it, and kissed the clouds above, is nirvana at 1,350 feet.
When Petit, an irrepressible performance artist with the puckish face of Marcel Marceau and the disciplined grace of Mikhail Baryshnikov, first read of plans for the world's tallest buildings, he knew they were his Mount Everest. "When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk" is his credo.
Indeed, before he tiptoed between the two towers, the French-born Petit capered en pointe between the Gothic towers of Paris' Notre Dame and the pylons anchoring the Sydney Harbor Bridge. For this street performer who uses architecture as his stage, bridging and connecting are the poetic goals.
In between talking-head interviews with the exuberant Petit and his accomplices, Marsh stages reenactments of the WTC break-in that have the comic feel of a Three Stooges bank-heist film.
Yet this motley crew, which included an Australian adventurer, an American stoner and the French metaphysician, managed the reconnaissance and the execution of what Petit calls le coup (triumph).
A master storyteller who relates his tale with a practiced flourish, Petit - who will be 59 next week - holds the screen with ease. Thirty-four years on, his accomplices, former friends and girlfriend recall the event with awestruck excitement that is contagious - and ratchets up the suspense.
(If some who were alive in 1974 only vaguely remember Petit's coup, it may be because it was eclipsed the following day by President Richard Nixon's resignation speech.)
While filmmaker Marsh never alludes to the events of 9/11, his chronicle in effect restores the towers to majestic life. The same chain of factors that brought them down - sneaky foreigners with false documents who bluff their way past security - was also responsible for Petit's exaltation of the gleaming twins. In the movie, they rise again above the Hudson like aluminum-clad sequoias.
In 1974, a reporter described Petit as combining "the cunning of a second-story man with the nerve of an Evel Knievel." On the basis of Man on Wire (which takes its title from the police complaint against the funambule, or wirewalker), he had the fearlessness of a 104-story man and something more than a daredevil's brass. One of the incomparably moving aspects of the film is to see Petit set the bar high and reach his goal.
Man on Wire ***1/2 (out of four)
Directed by James Marsh. With Philippe Petit. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (brief sexuality, nudity, drug references)
Showing at: The Ritz Five and Showcase at the Ritz Center/NJ
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey