Tag Archives: Man on Wire

Best Documentaries of 2008


This is sort of my pre-emptive excuse for not including any documentaries on my “best films of 2008” list (coming later in the month). Plus, I have such respect for the documentary form (i.e. “nonfiction film”) that I think it deserves its own best-of-the-year list. So, without further ado, here are my picks for the five best documentaries of 2008.

5) The Unforeseen: This film—the debut by director Laura Dunn—starts out as an unassuming, no-frills documentary about real-estate development in Austin, TX. But it soon takes on a much larger importance, as a provocative and sobering meditation on larger issues—urban sprawl, unbridled capitalism, the environmental hazards that accompany American “manifest destiny,” etc. It’s not a didactic film, but a sort of poetic cautionary tale, featuring stunning photography by Lee Daniel of a natural world at risk in the path of unstoppable human ambition.

4) Standard Operating Procedure: Documentarian extraordinaire Errol Morris is known for his reflexive approach to the form: his films feature self-conscious melding of fiction and fact, examinations of the very nature of “truth” as seen in photograph, film image, or memory. He is in top form here, in his controversial and highly disturbing documentary of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. It’s a film that truly floored me—not only because of the images or Morris’ trademark psychologically rich interviews—but because of the unexplained amorality and everyday evil that the film exposes. It’s a film Hannah Arendt would have a lot to say about, I imagine.

3) Man on Wire: This British film from director James Marsh is a striking, powerful look into the life of Frenchman Philippe Petit—the acrobat daredevil who famously walked between the two World Trade Center towers on a high wire in 1974. Aided in no small part by the exuberance of its subject (Petit’s wild-eyed wonder and love of risky beauty is utterly contagious), Man on Wire is a truly gripping, enthralling adventure of a film. Stylishly told with interviews, archival footage and reenactments, this is a story you do not want to miss. It’s a concise film with broad, life-affirming reach, though it doesn’t hammer you over the head with its significance.

2) Encounters at the End of the World:
Werner Herzog’s epic “Antarctica film” ends up being less a documentary about Antarctica as it is about the humans who—for some reason or another—are living on the world’s most uninhabitable continent. Always the eccentric and aggressively curious filmmaker, Herzog and his cameras take us to unexpected, awe-inspiring places in and around McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Herzog’s off-the-wall voiceovers—combined with some truly fascinating images and interviews—make this film one of the truly singular documentaries in the modern history of the form. It’s complicated, beautiful, confounding, funny, with a refreshing dearth of answers or arguments but an unbridled and joyous sense of cinematic wonder.

1) American Teen: I don’t know that this was necessarily the “best” documentary of the year, but I think it touched me the most. There were moments of it that touched me deeply, and many moments that felt utterly, devastatingly honest. I think part of it is that the film—about a handful of high school seniors in Indiana—came down so close to my own Midwestern high school experience. For good or ill, it brought back a flood of memories. The film, from director Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture), also does some interesting things with the documentary form: playing with fact and fiction, drama and cliché in the way that The Hills treats its “real” subjects: as characters in an archetypal world where we are all living out roles that are in some sense prescribed for us.

Why We’re Obsessed With Taking Crazy Risks

I saw an extraordinary film tonight, a British documentary called Man on Wire. It’s a sharply made film about Frenchman Philippe Petit’s notorious, unauthorized high-wire walk atop the World Trade Center towers on August 7, 1974. The film is a funny, tender, fascinating, thrilling examination of one strange man’s obsession with flirting with death and living on the edge (literally).

It’s an extreme example, no doubt, but the film’s beauty is that Petit’s story serves so well as an archetype for humanity in general: we are wired to seek risk, to challenge ourselves, to dare death.

As I watched the film and marveled at Petit’s precarious, balanced walking across wires suspended thousands of feet about Manhattan, I thought of last night’s women’s gymnastics final and the amazing performances on the balance beam. Am I the only one who finds the beam the most impressive of all gymnastics feats? Watching Nastia Liukin tumbling and flipping and twirling on this narrow beam was utterly breathtaking. How do these people do it? And more curiously: why?

Indeed, my thoughts after seeing Man On Wire and a week’s worth of Olympic sports centers upon the question of why humans are subjecting themselves to such extreme, risky, unnatural challenges. Why are people like Michael Phelps consuming (and burning) 12,000 calories a day so as to be able to swim fast back and forth in a 50 meter pool? Why are weight lifters risking gruesome joint dislocations to raise unholy loads of metal above their heads? (as in Hungarian Janos Baranyai’s unfortunate accident earlier this week). Is it because in our post-industrial, ultra-pampered, developed world we have so little else to channel our primitive needs to conquer and destroy? Or maybe we’re just bored and looking for something—even bodily harm or death—that will jolt us awake?

With the Olympics we could say: well, there is the end goal of a gold medal and Wheaties box… And I guess that is as good a thing as any to spend one’s life painstakingly seeking. But something tells me that most of these athletes do what they do not just to get some shiny medal or trophy. There is something deeper and more elemental to it—a uniquely human willingness to sacrifice oneself physically (and mentally) for something that doesn’t have anything to do with survival. It’s not like Phelps is swimming for his life; it’s not like Petit is risking death on the high wire in order to escape a burning building (an image all too easily called forth given the twin towers’ ultimate iconic legacy).

No, these men are doing insane things because it is a thrill to do so… to push the limits of their being and transcend regular existence. I think we all have this desire, actually. But is it a good desire? Or is it a desire (like pride, lust, etc) that we must carefully keep in check? I don’t know, but it sure does make for thrilling entertainment.