Ian Rickson on James Marsh’s ‘Man on Wire’

Documentary has the resonance of epic drama

I loved “Man on Wire.” It transfixed me. I watched it with Kristin Scott Thomas at the Sunshine Cinema while we were previewing “The Seagull” on Broadway, and it was an ideal cultural escape. The director, James Marsh, found a seamless way of sewing together period footage, re-created material and personal disclosure with extraordinary skill. It really made me think about the struggles to make art that Chekhov was writing about in the play we were working on.

The wife and best friend of Philippe Petit, the high-wire artist, talked so movingly about the man they supported, and the strengths and weaknesses of his uncompromising vision. The struggle to set up the amazing, death-defying walk between the Twin Towers was compelling, and all the way through there was a subtle narrative of loss as we looked at the construction of those iconic buildings.

The miracle of the walk, like an angel on the clouds, was astounding, and the film caught the emotional precariousness of the moment. Petit chose to spend the following nights with generous New York women offering themselves to him and separated from those who had supported him. At the end of the film, he is alone, proud, still seemingly energized by the tenacity of his dreaming.

The best documentaries, like Steve James’ “Hoop Dreams,” have the structure and resonance of epic drama. “Man on Wire” is beguiling because it suggests miracles are possible, but at the same time explores the complexity of striving for them.

This Broadway season, Ian Rickson segues from “The Seagull” to “Hedda Gabler,” which opens Jan. 25.

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