the social organization of being out of your #%%$# mind


Man on Wire is a 2008 film about Philippe Petit, the man who walked between the World Trade Center buildings in 1978. It’s a moving film about a truly audacious, yet beautiful, act, but the story also has many interesting connections to orgtheory.

First, what makes the story interesting is its organizational context. Of course, anybody who tightrope walked across any space a quarter mile up is notable. But part of the attraction is how Petit and his crew pulled this off inside the giant bureaucracy. For example, to get access to the technical specifications of the towers, Petit and his associates passed themselves off as a French newspaper crew doing a story about the construction of the tower. Also, Petit spent many months spying on the towers, not just for architectural reasons, but to sense how a French street performer, his equipment, and his team could infiltrate the top floors of a well guarded office complex. Solution: Get some insiders who can provide cover, buy business suits so you won’t like a street bum, and learn to play hide and seek with the security guards at night.

Second, there’s an interesting interplay between the Petit himself and the organization that helped him out. Each time he does a major rope walk, he assembles about 5-10 people to help with every detail from finance to building little paper models of the buildings. An important issue is that his friends knowingly put him at risk and they can also be legally liable for anything bad that happens. One way to overcome this is charisma – an expert performer, he knows how to pull people in. He has a very attractive intensity. He also has a knack for recruiting people who are into adventures. There’s also an interesting “sunk cost” psychology. Working on such an intense project, once people commit they *really* want to see the walk happen.

Third, the success of the project completely transforms the organization. Pulling off the WTC walk turned Petit into a global celebrity, but changed the relationships he had with the people who helped out. The girlfriend, for example, realized that he was simply different after the walk. Petit had done something so unique and remarkable and he emerged as someone else after the stunt. His friends who helped him were burned from the experience. Some, just from the stress of doing it, others, from the threat of legal action. The short lived organizations around Petit are pulled together by vision, charisma, and technique, but are nearly impossible to sustain.

I have more respect for Petit and what he does after seeing this movie. Sure, he’s an attention grabber, but, as he says, he doesn’t court death. The goal of his massive preparation isn’t to risk death, it’s to defy gravity, break boundaries, and fly. And there’s an utter joy to what he does because he knows that it is completely safe, at least for him!


Written by fabiorojas

March 23, 2009 at 12:05 am

5 Responses

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  1. Great movie! At the beginning of the film I was surprised that it took so many people to break into a building and organize a high-wire stunt, but by the end you see how each player fits into a tight and fairly routinized organization. If I were still teaching complex organizations at the undergrad level, this film would find its way into the course.



    March 23, 2009 at 1:39 pm

  2. Fabio and Brayden: Agreed. And for those of you who haven’t seen it: you can catch it on “Watch it Now” on Netflix. This function has changed my life. You can watch lots of stuff without waiting for the mail or anything. And with a Roku player it would be awesome (thanks for the tip, Peter). Unfortunately I have a Mac. So I can just watch stuff on my computer. But it still rocks my world.

    There is something unbelievably touching about the film. Particularly in terms of your third point. They all worked so hard, so mindlessly toward this ridiculous goal. And they reached it. And it destroyed their friendships.

    The act itself, and what happened to them was hauntingly beautiful.



    March 23, 2009 at 9:38 pm

  3. Sounds great! I look forward to watching this….



    March 23, 2009 at 9:57 pm

  4. What struck me about this movie was the way Petit was able to create a space for the performance of his art. On Notre Dame and in Sidney, the police kept their distance until he was through with his little stunt. Only then did they exercise their (perfectly legitimate) authority.

    This point was slightly undermined by what I recall as a threat one officer recalled making on the roof of the WTC of coming after him with a helicopter if he didn’t come in on his own. But that same officer (or perhaps another one, I don’t quite remember) was also clearly able to appreciate the artistry (not just the pranksterism) of the performance.

    Much of the beauty of Petit’s work lies in the fragility of the space his illicit tightrope produces.

    Perhaps social movement research has something to theorize here: the way various public “demonstrations” create a space that power must respect by combining safety and beauty, aesthetics and security.

    Didn’t Norman Mailer say something like this about Ali’s restraint in the final moments of the Rumble in the Jungle?


    Thomas Basbøll

    March 24, 2009 at 10:20 am

  5. I also streamed the film over netflix, which I agree is life-changing technology.
    One question about the film: why all the “aka”s? It seemed like several characters had two names.


    Jenn Lena

    March 24, 2009 at 12:37 pm

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