On the morning of Aug. 7, 1974, after months of preparation and years of dreaming, a French daredevil named Philippe Petit stepped into the sky above Lower Manhattan. For almost 45 minutes he ambled back and forth on a metal cable strung between the towers of the World Trade Center, a feat of illegal tightrope walking that, according to a New York Police Department sergeant who recounted Mr. Petit's act of physical poetry in dry press-conference prose, would more aptly be described as dancing.
For many years after, Mr. Petit's stunt was a cherished footnote in the annals of New York history, one of the touchstones of a crazy, awful, glittering era in the life of the city. The destruction of the twin towers in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, revived the memory of that earlier aesthetic assault on the buildings, which is now the subject of "Man on Wire," James Marsh's thorough, understated and altogether enthralling documentary. Wisely, Mr. Marsh, who based his film on a book Mr. Petit published in 2002, never alludes to Sept. 11. That would have been both distracting and redundant, since itâs impossible, while watching a movie so intimate in its attention to the towers, not to be haunted by thoughts of their fate.
But it is also worth recalling that the trade center inspired more love posthumously than while it stood. Mr. Petit was an exception. A zealous, daring wire walker -- the French word funambule is a more lyrical, as well as a somewhat more ridiculous-sounding term -- he conceived a passion for the structures even before they were built.