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Gillespie: One 9/11 film gets it right

Philippe Petit, a French high wire artist, walks

Philippe Petit, a French high wire artist, walks across a tightrope suspended between the World Trade Center's Twin Towers. (Aug. 7, 1974) Photo Credit: AP

Nick Gillespie is co-author of the book "The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America" and editor in chief of Reason.tv and Reason.com. A longer version of this article can be read here: http://reason.com/archives/2011/08/01/why-art-failed-us-after-911.

A decade after the 9/11 attacks, the dust from that horrible day has mostly settled, literally if not quite figuratively. Something still catches in our collective throat like the cloud of concrete ash and human soot that scarred the lungs of policemen and firefighters and school kids and office workers and restaurant help that day in lower Manhattan.

There is still a need for memorializing, for processing the event into the familiar, contained, and ultimately comforting forms of art, to help us deal with an irrational, cruel world. If we can make art, however dark and sad, from the worst that befalls us, we can withstand anything. This is one of art's great promises.

But art generated in response to 9/11 has been almost completely unsatisfying so far, despite game efforts by such creative geniuses as Bruce Springsteen (with his 2002 album "The Rising") and Don DeLillo (the 2007 novel "Falling Man"). Too much of it has sought to replace the scene of violence and loss with superficial if heartfelt emotionalism or the pre-existing obsessions of the artist, a psychic flight to more manageable terrain. The senselessness of this heinous act has exceeded our ability to tame it into shape.

The most arresting 9/11 art doesn't seek to explain the larger context of the event in any sort of argumentative, thesis-driven way. These acts of memorialization give us the ability to sit next to the rubble of human lives and aspirations, to grieve not from a distance but to make a final connection with those whose hearts, hopes and dreams were atomized on 9/11.

One of the best is the 2008 documentary "Man on Wire." The deserving winner of an Academy Award, James Marsh's film retells the story of the French aerialist Philippe Petit, who in 1974 strung a cable between the Twin Towers and spent the better part of an hour performing 1,300 feet above a sparse but rapidly growing audience in lower Manhattan before being taken into custody. No moving footage of the actual performance remains, so the narrative is told through period stills, newsreels, interviews and dramatic reconstructions. As with 9/11, we know how the story ends, yet the tension throughout the film is almost unbearable.

Time and again, Petit's grand, long-planned conspiracy almost fails to come together, and yet when he finally takes to the air, all those struggles melt away into a celebration of man's outer limits of possibility. Petit literally dances on thin air. The tightrope walker and his confederates, along with everyone from the comically accented and mustachioed cop who arrests Petit after the act to newscasters from the '70s, meditate in real time and in retrospect on how they knew they were participating in something that would never happen again -- that could never happen again. New, tighter security measures would see to that, but also because Petit had crossed over into international celebrity. The world of all those involved was irrevocably changed.

The brilliance of the movie is that it allows us to visit the World Trade Center and linger there for as long as we wish, while never pretending to forget the gaping hole that will always be there no matter what physically replaces the destroyed buildings. The film is no exercise in feel-good nostalgia; it doesn't allow us to escape the utter destruction of 9/11 so as much as it compels us to face a moment in time that can never be revised. It is what it is, to quote a phrase that became ubiquitous after 9/11.

Throughout "Man on Wire," all the people involved in Petit's plot -- an immensely complicated and lucky conspiracy of joie de vivre that almost perfectly mirrors the dark-hearted death plot of 9/11 -- break down in tears as they recall the precise moment when the tightrope walker stepped out into the void between the North and South towers. Decades later, they are rendered mute by memory, overwhelmed by the recollection of a moment when the unthinkable became reality, if only briefly.

It is in those unstoppable, unabsorbable tears that art honors the dead of 9/11, because it allows us to remember a day we all wish to forget. Here art offers not a refuge from reality but an entry back into it. "Two years, ten years," writes poet Carl Sandburg, "and the passengers ask the conductor, What place is this? Where are we now? I am the grass. Let me work." The most powerful art of 9/11 refuses to let that happen by refusing to insist that we must make sense out of a senseless act.

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