We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
As an empty-nester, finding activities to fill time is a weekly quest. The wife and I are in the second year of being home alone (it had been 20 years since we were only a couple, prior to last Fall), and there is always a question of finding interests we both share, or are willing to endure for the sake of the other.
This weekend we determined to go to the movies. The Martian was playing, and has gotten good reviews. I like Sci-Fi, she does not, but she likes movies where people save Matt Damon, I guess. As luck would have it, the showtimes were all sold out. We then considered The Walk, Robert Zemeckis' dramatization of Philippe Petit's traversing the World Trade Center Towers. It was in 3-D. Generally, I don't like 3-D. We thought maybe this would be a good application of the gimmick. It could be fun to be that close to feeling what Petit felt. The wife was not as sure, and she had see Man On Wire, the documentary, which I had not seen. She had enjoyed the documentary and wasn't sure this would do the story justice. Still, we took the plunge.
If you can deal with 3-D, the movie is relatively true to the story, and told in compelling fashion. Not being a fan of 3-D, I'd have to say it worked. My palms were sweating as he crossed the wire. I flinched twice in scenes which were deliberately shot to make you flinch (knew it was going to happen, but still fell for it).
My attention was captured by the depth of the story. It is a quintessential American tale. A success against all odds, a single person motivated to accomplish something and finding a way to get it done. A general lack of attention to, or appreciation for, his trade - until he accomplished a monumental task.
Petit knew his "coup" was going to be difficult and spent a great deal of time and money preparing. He slowly built a cadre of 'accomplices' to figure out how to pull it off. Most would receive nothing for their effort, except the realization they helped poke a finger in the eye of 'The Establishment' or took part in a great artistic venture. Petit was no stranger to events like this. He had walked between the towers of the Notre Dame, as well as the Sydney Harbor Bridge. However, he noted security at the World Trade Center was substantial. It was nearly impossible to sneak in. Yet sneak in he did. An American tale? Absolutely. Petit felt his chances of success were zero, yet he went forward undaunted.
Obviously, despite a myriad of delays (the original date for the 'coup' was May) and other problems, Petit exceeded his wildest expectations. He spent about 45 minutes on the wire, laying down, kneeling in salute to his audience, balancing on a single leg. He crossed eight times before the threat of rain drove him in.
His event breathed life into two buildings which were at best considered boring, and at worst detested, from an aesthetic standpoint. What was once considered dull and uninspiring was now a challenge with appeal to the masses. Even the people he defeated or duped, elevator operators, police, loading dock managers, were impressed with his audaciousness and skill. President Nixon, resigning the next day, stated he wished he had the kind of publicity 'that Frenchman' had.
Petit adopted the United States as his own, for a variety of personal reasons, though I have a feeling he recognized a shared camaraderie with a people who sought to accomplish things. He didn't see the Towers aesthetically, he saw the challenge they represented and the opportunity they presented. At the time, few places other than the U.S. could handle a personality like his.
His arrest led to a police report of a "Man on Wire" - the title of the documentary - because the police weren't quite sure how to describe what happened. The acclaim he received led to a sentencing of community service - to perform for children on a wire at Central Park.
That was then. We are a different nation today. Several people followed in Petit's footsteps, taking on the challenge of the Towers (and their replacement) - but none got the glory or attention he did. Each faced a tougher audience and stiffer fines. Part of that was the sheer death-defying nature of what Petit had done. Part was a slow change in society, turning our backs on the audacious, the bold and the brash. Petit, today, would be sent packing back to France after paying some fines, perhaps some jail time, and his 'coup' described as a 'dangerous stunt' which put lives in danger.
We are a weaker nation today, we have moved away from what used to make us great. The Walk, to me, is an inspiration to return to what is great about our nation and its history. Individuals take bold risks, aspire to great dreams. But today we seek complacent and boring things and eschew the adventure. Politicians and bureaucrats who will coddle, nanny, and otherwise minister to our wants and needs. We are told "You didn't build that" and that individual achievement a myth, almost dangerous. Risk isn't something leaders push us to seek anymore, but rather collective action. Politicians prefer a static and regulated society. Petit's 'coup', in this respect, may have demarcated a massive turning point in our nation's culture. While his walk was an act of individual achievement, certainly it was not a collective achievement. Elizabeth Warren and Obama would have us spend more time discussing the people who built the towers, the team which assisted him, but very little time on Petit's vision and effort - let alone the triumphant act itself.
Many people still love him today for what he did. But are they willing to accept those who follow him? As impressed as I am with some of them, I get the feeling most people are not interested in the single actor seeking to make a bold statement. They prefer the safety of numbers and the comfort of commonness.
I wonder if, and actually doubt, Petit shares my political and economic views. He is a dreamer, a visionary, and an artist. They rarely see past their own art to the stark reality of the world. It doesn't matter, though. Petit's (and Willig's, Brady's and Rossig's) actions show the impact of the individual on the world and the difference a single person can make.
Petit was an adventurer. While I saw a larger commentary about American society, I also took in some personal inspiration. The desire to push past the boundaries of being an 'empty-nester' and the regimen it often brings. I don't have to be as audacious as him, I just have to want to break whatever is routine. It's about taking the first step.