Walking a Wire Between The Trade Center Towers

The view was magnificent. To the south, the Verrazano Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. To the east, the approaching sunrise, the sky turning from deep to pale blue at the horizon. At a quarter mile up, perched on a precipice, he was high enough to see the curvature of the Earth, but he could still hear the distant murmur of the city below. He knew the police were on their way—after all, what he was doing was illegal—but he couldn't help taking a few precious seconds to look around. Then he stepped off the ledge, and started to walk. For 45 minutes, Philippe Petit traversed a steel wire strung over the canyon between the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center. The year was 1974, and the towers were still months from being finished. In all, he made eight passes through the air, before stepping back on the roof. Because he had toyed with the police—several times he ventured close enough for them to almost grab his shirt, then backed away—they were rough when they arrested him, he says, pushing him down a flight of stairs with his hands cuffed behind his back. This, he claims, was the most dangerous part of his stunt.

Thirty-four years later, the towers are gone, but a new film, "Man on Wire," provides a dual portrait of Petit's coup, as he calls it, and of the city he walked above. Though the destruction of the towers is never alluded to in the film, our knowledge of their fate provides a sobering counterpoint to the joyous scenes of Petit clowning around the city, and underscores how much New York, and our country, has changed. When three men separately scaled the New York Times Building recently, their stunt failed to evoke the joie de vivre of Petit's caper. "New York was much more dirty and unforgiving then," says director James Marsh, who used archival footage and re-enactments of the feat in "Man on Wire." "But it also seems more fanciful. There was an openness the city had then. We've lost that innocence."

Petit, a French juggler and performance artist, had dreamed of traversing the Twin Towers since he read about plans for their construction as a teenager. He had already walked between the steeples of Notre Dame and above Sydney's Harbour Bridge by the time ground was broken for the Trade Center. The logistics of his escapade, which involved forged ID cards, fake mustaches, walkie-talkies and a bow and arrow smuggled through Kennedy airport in a suitcase, were both elaborate and endearingly amateurish. Posing as construction workers, Petit and a ragtag group of co-conspirators sneaked up to the top floor of each tower, waited until dark, then shot an arrow with the wire attached from one roof to another.

Petit still doesn't know what made him want to walk between the towers. In planning his coup, he focused almost entirely on the logistics, not on what it would be like out on the wire. "The path is as important as the result," he says. "The result is meaningless for me. It was not in my nature to walk across and scream 'Victory!' To get in the book of records, get rich and famous, that was not my goal." Though witnessed from below by thousands of spectators, the experience itself was private. "It was an intimate communion between me and those buildings," he says. But, intended or not, his walk did bring him fame, and despite his later feats, he remains linked for many to the World Trade Center. On the morning of September 11, 2001, a neighbor called him and said, "Your towers are being destroyed."

The film's re-enactment of Petit & Co.'s plot to conquer the towers could seem to evoke the actions of the 9/11 terrorists, but Marsh says he didn't intend any parallels. "In 1974 you have a group of Frenchmen plotting a crime against the buildings, but the crime was to transform it into this beautiful art space," he says. "I didn't want to contrive to make the movie about something that it wasn't about. It seeks to reclaim a different memory for those buildings." In the film, many of Petit's accomplices tear up remembering the beauty of his walk, but for him, life is in the here and now, his focus concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. "Everybody recalls the adventure as the best time in their lives," he says. "But for me, the best time of my life could be today. There is no nostalgia for that time."

New York may have changed since Petit and his band of pranksters pulled off their caper, but at 58, the wire walker himself appears to have barely aged. He lives in New York's Catskills Mountains in a wooden bungalow with a large yard where he practices his craft several hours a day. Even sitting in his living room, decidedly earthbound, he has the physical assuredness of someone who has complete mastery over his body, using his hands and torso to illustrate his thoughts with eloquent, efficient gestures. Though he claims to have been arrested more than 500 times and says he has the mind of a criminal, he makes a comfortable living giving commissioned high-wire performances around the world, writing books and lecturing on creativity. He is dismissive of performers who ride unicycles or do somersaults on high wires—in his view, they reduce the art to mere technical display. And he says it has never occurred to him to use a safety net. "I never fall," he says, "but, yes, I have landed on the earth many, many times." In "Man on Wire," he soars.