A talking-heads documentary whose ending is preordained simply from the fact that it exists at all has no business working as a nerve-wracking thriller, but here we have Man on Wire anyway, existing in defiance of all logic, which looks at the film's components and concludes that only a crazy person could find this to be anything but a decently intriguing look at a single Frenchman's quixotic struggle to prove...it's never actually very clear.

But this is the real world, where logic has no place, and here, Man on Wire is one of the most exciting movies to come out all year. Director James Marsh combines interviews, old footage and gritty monochrome re-enactments to tell the story of Philippe Petit, a high-wire artist and street performer who strung a line between the two towers of the World Trade Center in August, 1974, and proceeded to walk back and forth eight times over 45 minutes, more than 1300 feet above the streets of New York, and the result is equal parts inspiring and exhilarating; one leaves the film marveling not only at Petit's achievement but also his unmitigated chutzpah, performing one of the most dangerous feats of street theater in history as nothing more than an extension of that old chestnut, "because it's there".

Focusing primarily on the six-year planning phase of the stunt, the movie is structured somewhat like an after-the-fact caper picture, outlining in fetishistic detail the way that Petit assembled his team, how they snuck equipment into the yet-unfinished towers, and all the various setbacks along the way, including nervous assistants and Petit's own impatience. Along the way he practices by walking between the two bell towers of Notre Dame de Paris, and across the Sydney Harbour Bridge - illegal and dangerous enough on their own, but mere appetizers for the big walk that Petit always considered the chief goal of his life. It wouldn't be fair to go any further into it than that, since the chief purpose of the film is in telling what happens at the WTC; suffice it to say that it is as ingenious a chain of events as can be found in any of the crime movies that Petit consumed voraciously during the same time.

By far the most engaging and successful element of the film is Philippe himself, 57 years old and still as enthusiastic and energetic as a kid on a sugar high. The best thing Marsh could ever do was leave the camera on the Gallic sprite as he recounts, using outsized physical gestures, all the struggles and triumphs of his early adventures (the tower walk occurred less than a week before his 25th birthday). Petit is a tremendously cinematic person; maybe not a phrase that makes much sense, but watching him jump around, hiding behind curtains, playing with WTC models, he stands as living proof that nothing is more fascinating than watching a human being go about the business of having passion. I don't mean for it to sound like a complaint if I say that the film could have twice as much interview footage with its star - hell, it could be nothing but interviews - and it would only improve.

Because the fact is, no matter how interesting the story may be, it's simply not as thrilling to hear it told by some of the less-invested figures (though calling some of them "less-invested" isn't really accurate whatsoever), not to mention the re-enactments; the one part of the film that I'd almost prefer not be there at all. The only significant misstep (I suppose the oppressive, leading use of music is another) is to open with a context-free sequence that slyly pretends that Petit and company were breaking into the WTC with malice on their minds, a bit of misdirection that maybe makes for a splashier introduction, but carries some pretty unfortunate connotations in a post-9/11/01 world.

At any rate, Man on Wire isn't and shouldn't be more than incidentally about the destruction of the WTC (though it's hard not to think about it, watching footage of the towers under construction). It's about one man and one event, and how he completed his life's goal at a young age, and was obliged to find a new direction for himself. The film has a myopic scope that prohibits much in the way of reflective musings or even anything much like a theme - the closest it comes is Petit's contention that life should be lived with ambition and danger, though he doesn't phrase it quite like that - but this only serves to focus our attention on how singular the walk was, and how fascinating the process behind it.

Essentially, this is just a human interest story, though I can't help but think that this sells it short quite dramatically. It's a human interest story that keeps you on the edge of your seat, thanks to an achievement that seems flatly impossible, even though Petit's obvious lack of death means that it clearly was possible. That's what makes it so compulsively watchable: seeing how a man redefined the very word "possible" to make sure that nothing could stand between him and his singular dream. We're swept up right along with that dream, and even if we know where everything ends up, the process of watching it happen makes it much more important than just "human interest" - Philippe Petit is showing us how to live the fullest life possible, never getting bogged down in "The Rules". It's a simple, even immature lesson, but it's nevertheless inspiring.