Walk of Ages: Petit set foot on his historic feat shortly after the towers were built.

Witnesses who caught Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the towers of New York’s World Trade Center in 1974 gushed about the beautiful act and thanked him for giving them “a gift.” But even if the very idea of such a stunt gives you a knot in your stomach rather than a lump in your throat, James Marsh’s account of Petit’s caper, Man on Wire, is pure delight. The nuts-and-bolts of preparing for what the compulsive climber/boundary-pusher referred to as “le coup” is compelling enough, with everyone from his then girlfriend, Annie, to his old crew recounting every detail of the project—how on earth does one lug up all the necessary equipment without anyone noticing?—as if it just happened. Petit’s wingmen, some of whom are wittily introduced with conspiracy-cool titles such as “Rock Star” and “Inside Man,” project a sly swagger over what they accomplished, but no one hesitates to discuss their doubts, either, which included certainty over their arrests and the impossibility of the challenge. (To boost the tension, Marsh accompanies these anecdotes with reenactments that are shadowy and quite tasteful—a feat in itself.) What really makes Man on Wire shine, though, is Petit. To call the Frenchman charismatic is like saying water’s wet. Whenever the slight Petit is onscreen—in current interviews with the now-59-year-old, and in archival footage showing him scurrying around France on a unicycle or practicing for the big day—words such as “scamp” and “sprite” come to mind. Petit is still youthful-looking and bursting with energy, speaking in quick, thickly accented speech and expressing a kind of unchecked exuberance that makes even his description of an elevator ride to the top of the towers seem like the most exciting story ever. Of course, “le coup” is le thing, and though there is no film capturing the deed, the doc offers plenty of jaw-dropping photographs of the near-hour Petit spent taunting police 1,350 feet below. Even as you’re sure the speck on that string high in the sky is an unfettered human, it’s difficult to wrap your mind around that fact. As for the nuttiness of the challenge, Petit was determined but not delusional. “If I die, what a beautiful death,” he remembers thinking. “To die in the exercise of your passion!” That this comment is the only mention of death adds to the film’s grace: Like a simple photo to remember a departed loved one, neither Marsh nor the interview subjects reference 9/11, allowing film of the newly birthed World Trade Center and a lovely story to serve as both tribute and valentine.