Man on Wire by: Ben Hailey

Posted: September 13, 2012 by jperritt in Documentary
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Man On Wire is a documentary about Philippe Petit, detailing his breath-taking tightrope-walking career.  The film is centred around his magnum opus, traversing the space between the Twin Towers in New York City on August 7, 1974.  In this post, let’s look at the film through the major themes of creation, fall, and redemption.  Let’s look at what we can celebrate about this amazing feat (creation), and the unhelpful and sinful direction he takes his talents (fall).  Last, by outlining the direction he takes his life, we can see where wholeness and healing are desperately needed as well (redemption).

First, creation.  The film is nothing short of jaw-dropping.  Over and over we are simply amazed at what this man can do on a braided steel cable less than one inch in diameter.  Several times we see that he doesn’t simply walk the wire; he jumps on it, lies down on it, flips on it—in the sun, rain, and snow. He calls other people out on his practice station (nestled in the beautiful woods of France) to jump up and down on it with the goal of throwing him off.  He “practices” for the Twin Towers, taking his act on the road and performing at Notre Dame in June 1971 and Sydney Harbour Bridge in June 1973. He puts his gifts and talents on display before the watching world, gifts and talents that flow from his identity as an image bearer of God: balance, poise, determination, focus, passion, love to name a few.  All of these point to a Creator who displays these traits (and more): our God, perfecting balancing the universe with birds that fly in the air, fish swimming in the sea, creatures crawling on the earth. Even in His vision for humanity, creating male and female, He’s “balancing” one another to draw out the treasures of earth for the good of earth itself.  If Petit is poised, determined, and focused on sharing his gifts with the world, how much more so is our God poised, determined, and focused on sharing Himself with us, both in his act of creating us and in His commitment to save humanity and the world from the ravages of sin and evil.

Speaking of sin, I noticed two defining points in the movie that reveal who and what the whole thing was really about: Philippe.  Let’s flesh out these two examples. Throughout the film, they interview his “team” of people, one of whom is his lover, Annie Allix.  At first, we may think, “That’s great! A community of people sharing in this amazing journey together.”  And that’s true to an extent.  But it’s after he walks the towers that we begin to see that it’s really about Philippe and no one else.

First, immediately after he walks the towers and is released from prison, a young woman offers herself to him and they have sex. It was, by today’s standards, a “hook-up.”  What about his long time friend and lover?  This reveals that no one was really sharing in anything; they were just participating in Philippe’s love for himself, which is not really love at all, because by definition love is oriented towards “other.”  Second, he had no “reason” for walking the towers other than one he conceived in his own mind. “I did something magnificent and mysterious and I got a practical, ‘Why?’ and the beauty of it is that I didn’t have a why,” later stating, “there is no why.” It appears nothing beyond himself captivated him. Don’t get me wrong: his accomplishments brought glory to God. The tragedy is that his self-worship significantly inhibited his opportunity to have joy in celebrating “other,” in this case, celebrating God Himself, the only one in whom there is deep joy and life and light.

Another tragedy is that once he accomplishes his feat, the group of friends disbands. Their entire relationship centered around this endeavor, and once the adventure came to end, so did their relationships—but this, again, is not really relationship. Why not? Because relationships are not only about working together to accomplish a specific task.  Relationship also includes simply being together, knowing and being known, sharing, celebrating “other.” This is why Beth (my wife) and I work together (raising children, serving others, loving neighbors, etc.) AND we play together (date nights, movie nights, pillow talk, etc.).  There is relationship among Philippe and his comrades, but it’s incomplete and falls short of God’s ideal for relationships.

A short word about redemption.  “Closure” might be the world we use to communicate redemption.  We see closure in fictional movies more than documentaries.  Why is that?  Because the reality is that this whole thing still aches and longs and begs for redemption.  In fictional movies, happy endings and closure (redemption) abound, but documentaries often speak to what is lacking because as a genre they record what actually happens.  And this reality, full of wonderful glorious created human beings and full of beautiful creatures and trees and rocks, is also infected with the parasite of sin and evil that tarnishes and mars that beauty and glory. We all know something is wrong with everything, but as believers we know that Christ will come and smush that parasite with his big toe, so that all of creation (including relationships) can once again thrive and flourish. We also know that the Christ’s resurrection implies that Christ has already begun that work and that we can participate now in this redemption.

Real purpose in relationships is being restored as we speak. Loving is possible now. Relationship is possible now.  Living for the glory of God is possible now.  Restoration of all things has already started, and there are myriad ways to participate now.   It begins with each one of us looking around and ridding ourselves of this parasite as best we can in all places, knowing that Christ is doing that now and will complete that work in full when he returns.

(warning: explicit scene at 1hr 24 min. in the film).


Rev. Ben Hailey is in his 9th year with RUF, the last four at Texas A&M.  Prior to that he attended RTS Jackson (’04) and Delta State University (’99) growing up primarily on the Gulf Coast but claims a patch of bottomland 6 miles east of Noxapter, MS as his homeplace.  He is married to Beth McNair (12 years) who grew up in Clinton, MS.  They have two children, Hannah (8) and Nathan (5).  Ben is a two-time Calhoun County Fair greased pig wrestling champion.


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