Man on Wire (2008) and Nobody’s Fool (1994)

I used to talk about “required reading” and “required viewing.” I had the illusion that intelligent people should share a common experience of popular art, and that the communal experience might enrich and expand everyone’s appreciation of all books, movies, and even of life itself. I’m not as naïve anymore, but every once in awhile I’m reminded in a wonderful way about how it used to feel – how a good book or a great film might transport one to someplace where anything is possible. That’s what art is for, and it is rarely so bold; then again, neither are we.

Through the miracle of NetFlix and their “Watch It Now” technology, I’ve seen two films in the past few days that have me thinking again, “everyone needs to watch these movies.” I’m just going to say it: Man on Wire and Nobody’s Fool are required viewing.

Man on Wire is a semi-documentary story about the Frenchman who walked a tightrope between New York’s twin towers in 1974. The story is part interview and recollection, and part dramatic recreation of the feat itself. The events of 9/11 are never mentioned, yet they frame the story implicitly as we see archival footage of the towers’ construction, and also the lengths the team goes to in order to illegally enter the towers and set up the tightrope rigging.

It’s difficult to express the emotional impact that watching a man walking (dancing!) on such a wire might ultimately deliver. I wonder if others will have the same reaction I did. This man is in defiance of society’s laws and customs, and he is in defiance of death. At the same time, his actions are a celebration of life. Ultimately, his “coup” is itself a transcendent work of art.

Robert Benton’s adaptation of Richard Russo’s novel Nobody’s Fool is transcendent in its own way. I can’t think of many other films that are as deeply, humanly satisfying as this one is. Russo’s book is one of my favorites, and Benton captures all of the humanity, compassion and even a good deal of the humor that made the book so wonderful.

The performances in the film are understated and outstanding. Paul Newman, Jessica Tandy, Melanie Griffith, Bruce Willis, Phillip Bosco and Phillip Seymour Hoffman all contribute to the perfect cast. Benton manages to capture the exact feel of an Upstate New York winter, and he maintains it throughout; what might have been unclear to readers from sunnier climates is made inescapable and indelible in the film. Please, see this film.

February 2009