Two documentaries now in theaters and well worth your time:
Man on Wire chronicles one of the most extraordinary feats in recent history: Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk on a cable surreptitiously rigged between the World Trade Center's twin towers, a quarter-mile above the pavement. The French aerialist had conceived the act six and a half years earlier, when the WTC was still just a series of architect's sketches; he spent months planning what he called "le coup," relying on an international gang of confederates (including a motley trio of New York City characters) and on his own unshakable devotion to his art. Director James Marsh has constructed the film like a heist movie (talk about mission impossible!), using archival photos and video footage, talking-heads interviews, and some witty and surprisingly effective re-enactments. (There's an especially charming reconstruction of Petit's post-coup boudoir frolic with an ardent admirer.) Petit, still a funambule at almost 60, is voluble, eloquent--he lives today in New York City, and his English is very good--and utterly engaging. Reflecting on the risk, he says, "What a beautiful death--to die in the exercise of a passion." As for the twin towers, no mention is made of their ultimate fate, and none is needed. Our knowledge makes Petit's coup all the more mysterious and poignant.
From the sublime to the subprime:
I.O.U.S.A. is full of bad news: the U.S. government is $53 trillion in the hole (that's $175,000 for every American citizen), we're deeply in hock to China, the term savings account seems as mystifying to average Americans as string theory. Yet this film--which has been accurately described as the Inconvenient Truth of fiscal policy--is energetic and eminently watchable. Directed by the team that made crossword tournaments seem like the Olympics (Wordplay), I.O.U.S.A. follows the quixotic point men of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan fiscal-responsibility organization, on their Wake-Up America tour. Along the way, we hear from, among others, Alan Greenspan (who--amazingly--is semi-badgered into a straightforward statement), Warren Buffett, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, and comedian/actor Steve Martin (in a very funny SNL sketch). You won't hear any of this stuff in the current presidential campaign, which makes it even more crucial for every citizen to see the movie and talk it up. No, it is not boring. Go see it.
P.S. Can't make it to the multiplex? One of the best films I saw earlier in the year, the Israeli-Egyptian collaboration The Band's Visit, is now available on DVD. An Egyptian military band scheduled to play at an Israeli Arab cultural center becomes stranded in the wrong dusty town, a place with "no Arab culture, no Jewish culture, no culture at all," as the tough-talking café owner puts it. The band members spend the night; not much happens, and yet we experience a world of longing and loneliness that's both universal and very site-specific. (In Hebrew, Arabic, and English.)