Philippe Petit: Man on Wire

Philippe Petit: Man on Wire


Shortly after 8:00 am on the morning of 7 August 1974, the now-not-there Twin Towers in New York became the site of what has been called "the artistic crime of the century" when French high-wire artist Philippe Petit spent 45 unauthorised minutes walking and performing between them on a tightrope, 412 metres (1,350 feet) above the street below … and all the time without a net.

Petit had been captivated by the idea of walking between the Twin Towers from when he first saw an image of the buildings in a magazine while waiting at a dentist's office, six years earlier in 1968. At that time, the towers were still under construction, and Petit began to dream and plan his walk, which he called "the coup”.

Along with an multi-cultural team of friends and accomplices, Petit spent months planning and rehearsing the walk. This involved more than 200 visits to the World Trade Center construction site, with Petit and his accomplices often in disguise. They faced numerous logistical challenges, including sneaking into the towers with equipment, evading security and setting up the wire under the cover of night. They had to use a bow and arrow (concealed in a cardboard tube meant for architectural blueprints) to shoot fishing lines across the gap between the towers, which they then used to pull heavier ropes and ultimately the steel cable across. The custom-made "walking wire" weighed a staggering 200 kg, so getting it across the void would have been no simple matter, and indeed it was secured just in time … literally minutes before Petit stepped onto the wire for his daring walk.

Petit performed for 45 minutes, making eight passes along the wire, lying down [Ed: Philippe, really?], kneeling, and even saluting the crowd below. Thousands of sweaty-palmed spectators gathered on the streets of Lower Manhattan to watch the spectacle. The police waited on both towers to arrest him once he finished.

Once arrested, Petit was taken for psychiatric evaluation but was later released. The DA dropped all formal charges of trespassing and other items relating to his walk on condition that Petit give a free aerial show for children in Central Park.

The act was considered to be not only an incredible performance of acrobatic skill and artistry, but perhaps even more so, an ingenious feat of modern-day engineering.

The 2008 documentary Man on Wire, directed by James Marsh, captures this incredible story through a mix of actual footage, re-enactments and interviews with Petit and his team. The documentary won numerous awards, including the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Petit also authored a book titled To Reach the Clouds, where he provides a detailed account of his obsession and journey to accomplish this historic walk. Finally, The Walk, a film based on Petit's walk, was released in September 2015, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit and directed by Robert Zemeckis.

As risky as the walks seem, Petit dislikes being referred to as a daredevil. Interviewed by Australian journalist Gary Maddox for a 2015 Sydney Morning Herald piece to promote The Walk, he says:

"I'm not trying to break records. I'm not trying to be the first, the longest or the highest. I don't want to cross and yell 'I did it' and try to be rich and famous. All those things that you see when people are not in the art of something. To me, it's really theatre in the sky. People call me a high-wire artist and it's really the art that I'm interested in."



1. Phillip Petit crosses between the Twin Towers on 7 August 1974. Photo credit: Alan Welner for AP.
2. Lower Manhattan with Twin Towers
3.  Petit gets ready to walk. Photo credit: Jean-Louis Blondeau.
4. Petit lies down. Photo credit: Jean-Louis Blondeau.
5. Petit answers reporter's questions as he is escorted from Beekman Hospital by Port Authority police officer in New York City. Credit: New York Daily News Archive / Getty Images.
6. Video
Man on Wire Trailer, 2008
7. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit lies down on the wire during his crossing between the Twin Towers in The Walk.
8. Philippe Petit attends a photocall for The Walk 3D during the 10th Rome Film Fest on 19 October 2015 in Rome, Italy. Photo credit: Stefania D'Alessandro for Getty Images.


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