While police sirens whine far below, this man looks from a towering skyscraper down at Gotham as he prepares to step into the abyss. He knows that what he will do is not legal, but thinks that it will benefit others. Even more, he is drawn -- by his very nature -- to act.
If you think I’m writing about Batman in The Dark Knight, well, I’m not (at least not just yet). I’m writing about Man on Wire, a documentary about tight rope walker and proto performance artist Philippe Petit, who wire walked between the tops of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in August of 1974.
Director James Marsh uses a combination of vintage footage, contemporary interviews and dramatic recreations to tell the story of how Petit dreamed up his mad scheme, recruited his motley band of helpers and circumvented security to bring his dangerous plan to fruition. In some ways, the film works as a caper or heist film wherein in a team is gathered to steal the jewels or break out of prison.
There is no mystery about whether he will be successful. After all, Petit is interviewed in the present day (so we know he lives), and no one would make a film about someone who wasn’t able to pull off an elaborate stunt over thirty years ago. The fun is watching how it was done. But it can be a bit unsettling to watch as blueprints for the World Trade Centers are laid out to plot a stunt, when we know that in the years after 1974 the blueprints for the buildings will be studied for much more malignant reasons.
But as a Christian, it is odd to be put in a place of rooting for someone who’s breaking the law. In Romans 13: 1 & 2 the apostle Paul wrote “1Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
Petit’s comrades argue that since he has no ill intent, it doesn’t matter if he breaks the law. In the film we are shown some of Petite’s stunts prior to the WTC, tightrope walking between the towers of the Norte Dame Cathedral and the towers of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. After being arrested in Sydney, Petit swipes the watch of one of the policemen who arrests him.
I think when we’re young we all have an impulse to break or at least bend the law. (I know as a kid and a teen, I might not have always strictly followed laws scrupulously concerning trespassing when with a friend off-roading or toilet papering houses or…the traffic laws or… how much of this do I want my kids to read?) And part of the fun of watching movies is seeing characters do what we would never do. But this is a real person committing a real crime that could have not only cost him his own life, but the lives of onlookers and the police called to bring him in.
And yet watching a man walk back and forth between those massive structures is captivating and at times quite beautiful. Can we become too obsessed with following legalities?
Jesus certainly was not always a stickler for the law. The Pharisaic law said that one should not do any work on the Sabbath, including healing. But we have this story about Jesus from Matthew 12 – “9Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?"
11He said to them, "If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." 13Then he said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other.”
But there is a difference. When Jesus broke the law, it was always clearly for the glory of God, the benefit of others and the furtherance of the Kingdom. It wasn’t just on a lark or for self glorification.
So back to Batman. Yes, I did see some similarities between these films. One of the most fascinating things in The Dark Knight (directed by Chris Nolan) is Bruce Wayne (played by Christian Bale) wrestling with the outlaw nature of his work as a vigilante. He sees his work as necessary to protect the lives of others, but he would rather be able to live within the law. But he finds he can’t.
In The Dark Knight, Wayne uses all the tools at his disposal to fight a war against crime and terrorism (as personified by the Mob and the Joker played by the late Heath Ledger). But he comes to realize there will be a cost to such a battle not just for himself, but for those who join him in the battle. And he agonizes over the potential costs in the lives of others. (Petit in Man on Wire rarely seems concerned by the costs paid by those who join him in his quest.)
These moral quandaries, never fully answered, are what make The Dark Knight a little more thoughtful that the average summer superhero epic. And it was odd to find that the fictional blockbuster was more serious on a moral level than the documentary from the BBC and Discovery Films.
Man on Wire is rated PG-13 for language, nudity and sexuality.
The Dark Knight is rated PG-13 for language and violence, but the violence probably should have earned it an R rating.