French high-wire artist Philippe Petit was 24 in 1974 when, in one of the great guerrilla-art spectacles of our time, he walked a wire he and his accomplices had illegally strung from one not-quite-finished World Trade Center tower to the other. There, 1,350 feet up from the sidewalk, he danced in the air for nearly an hour between what were then the world's tallest buildings. Later, the man with the elfin face and catlike feet was arrested, sent to a shrink, released and celebrated around the world.
The empty space where those Twin Towers once stood is never acknowledged in Man on Wire, James Marsh's breathtaking documentary about that mad-genius ''coup'' (as Petit calls it) achieved over three decades ago. And that choice itself is a kind of daring high-wire act: For the duration of this film, the towers are solid again. This is about what happened then, the quest and the realization, told by the colorful dreamers who made it happen, and balanced by Marsh with a lovely sense of rhythm, wit, and wonder. Petit himself is a lithe and mesmerizing narrator with (not surprisingly) a flair for the dramatic, even in words. Equally marvelous is Annie Allix, then Petit's girlfriend, who finds les mots justes to describe the challenge, triumph, and aftermath back on earth. The gorgeous music includes Ralph Vaughan Williams' wafting tone poem ''The Lark Ascending'' apt in describing an artist who might well be part bird. A