One of the film's great achievements is how it portrays Petit—not as a stuntman, or a fanatic, or a demented man intent on destroying himself—but rather as a singular individual with an unusual talent and a unique ambition. Petit says in the film that as soon as he read about plans to construct the World Trade Center in New York City he conceived his dream of walking between the two towers. Petit is shown as obsessively and even monomaniacally devoted to the pursuit of this dream. He enlists friends as accomplices in his scheme. He trains on a wire suspended across a field. He draws diagrams. They argue over strategy. They sometimes seem to give up. They fly back and forth across the Atlantic and scout out the World Trade Center, its stairways and entrances. They plot as if they are going to rob a bank or a museum, but their true goal is something quite different, something loftier. (Where he got the funds to pay for this scheme the film never mentions).
Man on Wire is a study in the personality of the people involved in the event, a chronicle of the steps they took to achieve their goal. It's also a celebration of the improbable and wondrous feat Petit amazingly pulled off. The film treats that moment, the culmination of the film, as a miraculous instant in time. The film is specifically a celebration of Petit himself, the young Petit. Even the older Petit, thirty-five years later, seems to stand in awe of his younger self.
As Petit's collaborators talk about their role in the event, they are often overcome with emotion, especially as they talk about the walk on the wires itself. They often seem incredulous over what they did—how they eluded guards and policemen in the Twin Towers, posed as workers in the building, hid under a tarp on the top floor when a guard passed through, used a bow and arrow to shoot a leader line from one building to the other.
When he takes his walk, Petit is so high in the air that that he is barely visible from the ground. Several of the men who helped him rig the lines took still photographs, and these are prominently featured in the film. The motion photography is of a barely visible figure—standing balanced on the war, sitting, reclining—remote and untouchable.
The film is narrated in retrospect, from a vantage point thirty-five years after the event it chronicles. Many of the major participants in Petit's walk—his girlfriend, fellow companions, Americans who decided to help him—are interviewed, and the film shows them both as they were in 1974 and as they are today. A few reenacted scenes, using actors, depict preparations for the event. Everyone expresses awe over Petit’s walk—his conspirators, the policemen who took him into custody, the manager of the World Trade Center. For most of them, once the wire walk was done and Pettit and others were taken into custody, that was the end of their relationship. He soon broke up with his girlfriend and lost touch with the friends who helped him. Everyone seems to accept the change as an inevitable consequence of the celebrity the feat brought him.
Never in the film is the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center towers mentioned. But it is there nonetheless, always implied, a future memory. Occasional images summon it up—a wafting slip of paper blown through the air, an airplane passing behind one of the towers. And the consequence of a mistake by Petit would have brought him plummeting 1400 to the ground and his death, another disquieting reminder of that day in 2001.
Man on Wire won the 2009 Oscar for best documentary, as well as numerous other awards.