Wire documents the price of an artist’s triumph
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By Peter T. Chattaway

THE SUMMER is winding down, all the big blockbusters have come and gone, and the last few horror movies and R-rated comedies have come along to sweep up what’s left at the box office before festival season begins and movies get serious again.

But a few noteworthy flicks are already out there, and one of the more interesting is Man on Wire, James Marsh’s documentary about Philippe Petit and his illegal high-wire walk between the World Trade Centre’s twin towers in August 1974.

Wisely, the film never mentions the terrorist attacks that brought the towers down in 2001. But it is impossible to watch the old footage of the towers being built without remembering how their foundations were exposed again so many years later.

And it is impossible to watch Petit and his friends plan their “artistic crime” –  a process depicted partly through re-enactments and partly through the home movies they shot at the time – without noting the similarities and differences between their conspiracy and the one that shocked the world years later.

But where the terrorists conspired for the purpose of death and destruction, Petit and his friends conspire to surprise the world – or at least New York City – with a celebration of skill and excellence, to bring a note of unexpected grace to people’s lives, and to give everyone present a truly “once in a lifetime” experience.

Alas, skill and excellence can sometimes go to a person’s head, especially when fame is added to the mix, and the film notes how Petit grew distant from his friends – especially his girlfriend – after his famous incident atop the towers. (The film briefly, but semi-graphically, recreates Petit’s first encounter with a groupie.)

So Petit’s astounding achievement – his “once in a lifetime” accomplishment – was a moment of triumph, on one level, but in hindsight there is also something sad about it. Petit’s high-wire act marked the end of a years-long obsession, but it also marked the end of the thing that had kept his group together for so long.

And what can a man do after he has conquered the tallest buildings in the world? It’s all a little reminiscent of that song from The Jungle Book in which the monkey king sings: “I’ve reached the top and had to stop, and that’s what’s bothering me.”

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I mentioned a few months ago that a movie about Billy Graham and his increasingly skeptical colleague Charles Templeton was in the works. Billy: The Early Years opens in American theatres October 10. An extensive trailer, parts of which look somewhat over-the-top, can now be seen at BillyTheEarlyYears.com.

It recently occurred to me that Graham might turn up as a character in yet another movie scheduled to come out in the next couple of months.

Oliver Stone has promised that his George W. Bush biopic, simply called W, will look at the role Bush’s religious conversion played in turning him from a wayward alcoholic into one of the key political figures of our time.

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Early reviews of the script indicated a conversation between Bush and Graham would play a central role. But a recent report in Screen Daily indicates Stacy Keach will now play “a composite of evangelical ministers, including Billy Graham and Jim Robison.”

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Technically, this is not a TV column; but where speculative fiction is concerned, some of the most interesting stuff happens on the small screen.

The first season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles indicated that the series is explicitly tackling the biblical overtones which were only implicit and allegorical in the original Terminator movies.                        

The series seems to be doing this largely through the character of FBI Agent James Ellison, who has begun to wonder if the apocalypse predicted in the Bible might be related somehow to the nuclear war Sarah Connor is trying to prevent.

So it was especially interesting to learn that Richard T. Jones, who plays Ellison, is himself a Christian, and that the producers are deliberately exploring the religious stuff to incorporate Jones’ faith into the show.

Meanwhile, NBC is developing a series  that modernizes the biblical story of Saul and David and sets it in a parallel universe, where cities like New York are governed by kings, not mayors or governors. Ian McShane – best known for Deadwood now, but also for playing Judas in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth – will play the Saul character, while Christopher Egan will play the David character.

Series creator Michael Green told SciFi.com the series would be about “magic, faith, happenstance, luck, God,” adding: “I look at it as the hand of faith guiding the heroes. I’m curious to see how people perceive that. The ongoing discussions when people see it are, ‘Is that magic? Did something just happen beyond physics? Is it something special, or luck?’ I won’t answer that, and will let people interpret that.”


September 2008