It's Been Real sets out to examine and analyze the documentary in all of its forms, looking at differing forms of expression, variant approaches to subject matter, and at our unending tendency to dramatize true events as a way of understanding our engagement with them.
"Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn't."-Mark Twain
"If I died what a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion."-Philippe Petit
There is an art to telling a story. There are ways to deal with the necessary exposition, to add flourishes to the boring parts, and to construct the narrative in such a way that those hearing the story are drawn in, kept entertained, and ultimately leave the story satisfied, and maybe a little wiser for their troubles. A great story is a marvel to behold, and for whatever reason, we're always a bit more impressed when we find out that a great story actually happened. This is why you see so many movies sold with the phrase "based on a true story" or some variation thereof.
Welcome to It's Been Real, where we'll look at attempts to tell real stories in a more real way. In less convoluted terms, we will examine documentaries and their efforts to structure examinations of real people and real events in ways that are dramatically interesting and hopefully even enlightening. It has been said that a great storyteller is a bit like a con man, often using tricks and misdirection to keep us from noticing the wheels spinning at the core of the story, and in that sense, the first documentary we will be looking at, Man on Wire, is an appropriate place to start. Structured like a heist film with a charming "con man" at its center, the film follows the planning, execution, and fallout of Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the World Trade Center's Twin Towers. Along the way, it examines both the man and the moment that, it becomes increasingly clearer, was the apex of his entire life.
Directed by James Marsh, the film (which won the Best Documentary Oscar) uses a combination of talking heads interviews, archival footage, photographs, and reenactments to piece together the planning and execution of Petit's greatest stunt. Told achronologically, the movie intersperses Petit's early ventures into high-wire walking (including walks atop the Notre Dame and the Sydney Harbor Bridge) with the planning of the World Trade Center walk, following the inception of the idea when Petit first heard of the construction of the towers, his obsessive infiltration of the building to spy on it, the assembling of his team of conspirators, the practice necessary to ensure his safety, and finally the actual events that occurred on the night prior to and the morning of his walk.
The movie is at its best when Petit is onscreen, oozing with palpable wonder and a sense of mischief as he recounts the events. He is a whimsical figure and definitely guilty of self-mythologizing, but that only makes his telling of the story all the more fascinating. The archival footage incorporated into the film is fairly impressive (though I will admit I am often impressed by the amount of archival footage documentarians are able to find, so that part of the film may not hold up as well as I delve deeper into the genre), including footage of all of Petit's famous walks and a lot of practice in a field where he recreated the distance between the Twin Towers. Less effective are the reenactments, which (again, revealing my initial bias that may evolve over the course of this feature) always feel hokey, cheap, and unnecessary to me, but are especially cheesy here. One of the disadvantages documentaries have to overcome is that, unlike other genres of film, which are completely dramatized, the camera cannot capture everything that is essential to the story, especially when the story happened over 30 years before the making of the film. While reenactments ostensibly solve this problem, they also tend to take viewers out of the moment. The advantage a documentary has is its veracity; when that is compromised, it cedes a lot of ground to its dramatized brethren.
Man on Wire also suffers at times from a lack of scope or contrast to put Petit's caper into proper context. It seems to flirt briefly with the telling the story of the construction of the towers, which would have fit nicely as a counter-point to the construction of Phillipe's plan, but it never fully goes down that road. The movie also could have dealt more with his life after the fateful high-wire walk, which seems from what we briefly gather to have been something of a letdown in the wake of his moment of triumph. Instead, the focus is so intense that some of the wonder of the event itself is lost until the film's final minutes, when footage of a police officer describing the event and Petit in an interview right afterwards give us a sense of the monumental significance of this moment and of how magical it must have seemed to those who witnessed it. For 45 minutes in August of 1974, a man walked on air almost a mile in the sky and captured the hearts and minds of a nation, and the world. A little context or a counter-point might have made this triumph more resonant, but the footage itself and the reactions we see to it are enough to render one awestruck at the accomplishment.
At its end, Man on Wire is a film about one man's passion and how his tireless dedication to a completely insane idea created a moment of pure magic. There is a subtle current of bittersweet nostalgia running throughout the movie (and especially at its end, where we see the now aged Petit take to the wire in that field again in an imitation of his Twin Towers walk), a sense that the man was at his best for less than an hour almost four decades ago. Perhaps this is the sadist in me, but I think there may have been something of more lasting depth in the examination of the man past his prime, seeming at times like a middle-aged man talking about his victory at the state championships when he was the quarterback in high school. Whether he has spent the rest of his life living in the shadow of his most triumphant moment is left to our imaginations, but on the day in question, Phillipe Petit pulled off a great caper, even if he only stole attention, and James Marsh has created a very good, if somewhat flawed, heist film about his exploits. And, even more impressively, this story is true.
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Coming up on It's Been Real:
9/18: Why We Fight
10/2: Nanook of the North
10/16: Fog of War
10/30: Super Size Me