A scheme was aimed at the World Trade Center before it was even built. Across the Atlantic, at a secret camp united around a charismatic leader, a group of conspirators built models and practiced their invasion. They acquired blueprints, forged documents, concocted disguises and built special weapons.

“We are not going to die, we are going to live,” one of the conspirators says, in his thick, foreign accent, moments before the plot was hatched.

To the credit of filmmaker James Marsh, the phenomenal new documentary, Man on Wire, about what is widely considered the greatest artistic crime of the 20th century—Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers—never directly mentions 9.11.

Instead we see stock footage of the World Trade Center’s construction; The hard hat-bedecked workers stand in the chaos of the construction-sight, ebullient, raising the same lattice-works of rust-orange steel that are now so easily recalled as they jutted jaggedly from the 9.11 carnage.

These scenes provide the visual bridge that suggests the upturned parallels between Petit’s performance and al-Qaida’s. What separates those acts is that Petit and his co-conspirators’ was one of creation, of giving and of beauty—that is, one of life. Al-Qaida’s, well…(It helps, of course, when one’s milieu churns with French filmmaker Guy Debord and the situationists rather than bin Laden and the jihadists.)

Ultimately, to watch Man on Wire is to reclaim the Twin Towers, however partially or fleetingly, as symbols of hope, human ingenuity and triumph.

It is also to be thoroughly entertained. Man on Wire is constructed like a heist flick, driven by a score of suspenseful strings (and melancholy, minor-note, brass pieces during more somber moments) and built of archival footage, evocative interviews and slickly rendered reenactments. Anyone who has had the displeasure of having his or her remote control battery go dead just as he or she lands on a late-night cable drama is wary of reenactments.

Rightfully so.

But these artfully made, black-and-white scenes of shadow and suspense capture the deeper-than-factual truths in Petit’s story—what German filmmaker

once called “ecstatic truth.” Herzog rightly claimed this truth was something that could only be reached “through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”

In terms of artifacts, though, Man on Wire is worth seeing for the images of Petit levitating a quarter mile above the Manhattan streets, alone.

As portly, Port Authority Sergeant Charles Daniels recalls in an interview just after he arrests Petit: “Officer Myers and I observed the, uh, tightrope…dancer—because you couldn’t call him a walker—approximately halfway between the two towers. Upon seeing us he began to smile and laugh. I personally figured I was watching something that somebody else would never see again in the world,” Sergeant Daniels says. “I thought it was once in a lifetime.”

Petit was eventually charged with disorderly conduct, the specific complaint read, “Man on Wire.”

And yet what sort of conduct could be more orderly? More sensible? More right? For another aspect of Man on Wire’s voyage back to a more innocent time, note Petit’s sentence: Juggling for some New York schoolchildren. In what deep pit of Guantanamo would Petit now reside if his effort had been post-9.11?

Man on Wire
Directed by James Marsh
With Philippe Petit, Annie Allix, Jean-Louis Blondeau and Jim Moore
94 min.