As a garden-variety liberal, I think controversy over things like flag burning is much ado about nothing. But, surprisingly, after seeing the unusually engrossing documentary, Man on Wire (which really isn't about flag burning or politics at all), I've had a minor shift in perception—the kind that can only be initiated by a great work of art.
In 1974, talented and obsessive French tightrope walker Philippe Petit pulled off an amazing feat. He and his friends managed to sneak up to the roofs of the World Trade Center's twin towers with hundreds of pounds of equipment and proceeded to rig a wire between the two buildings. Petit then spent 45 minutes walking and bouncing and dancing and making art so imaginative and transcendent that it can never be replicated again.
Filmmaker James Marsh primarily structures his documentary as a heist film, by having the very animated Petit narrate his incredible story and by staging beautifully shot dramatic recreations that trace the motley crew's "crime," from its complicated planning stages to its suspenseful execution.
The movie manages to say a lot about the artistic process and about how we all can convince others to dream our dreams though the power of our own conviction. But perhaps the most striking thing here, perhaps the smartest act of cinematic and storytelling slight of hand, is that the events of September 11, 2001, are never mentioned even once. This omission is a stroke of genius—by focusing on the past grandeur of the World Trade Center and its symbol of magnificence and wish fulfillment, we are oddly made doubly aware of this country's grand loss when the towers collapsed after terrorist attacks seven years ago. We lost buildings, sure, but what cuts deeper is that not only did the buildings stand but they also stood for something—as did the subsequent rubble. The ruins represented the death of thousands, the dangers of prosperity, and, most heartbreaking, the fall of a nation's perceived innocence and safety. The latter is emphasized by the fact that Petit and his friends were able to pull off the "crime" in the first place and walk away from it scot-free. It would never happen today.
Man on Wire also serves as loving tribute to the World Trade Center, and you can't help but get a bit choked up when thinking about what Petit achieved and about how two of his "tools"—the buildings that held him high and proud—have been destroyed.
So while anti-flag burning wingnuts and their past rallies to amend the Constitution still make me roll my eyes, I am reminded of the power of symbols in our everyday lives and the way that some of these symbols take root in our minds and our realities. So when people recoil at the sight of fire to a flag, I am reminded of how much it can actually hurt.