Lucy in the Sky minus diamonds

lucy2Natalie Portman is as terrific as ever in a drama that never really ignites or fulfils its potential, but which I nonetheless quite enjoyed. It serves as an unintended but welcome companion-piece to First Man, offering a more contemporary, and female, perspective on how Space affects the human experience; I think its very interesting, and certainly most welcome, that new films are starting to revaluate the Space Race and humanity’s faltering steps into the Cosmos. Its a pity that there’s little particularly profound in these films, but we’re clearly getting there. 

In First Man, the engineer/test pilot enigma that is Neil Armstrong, first man to walk on the moon, inevitably remained the enigma, even though the film offered some suggestions regards what made the man ‘tick’.  The sense of the unknowable (in Armstrong) was mirrored by the unknowable in Space, the immensity of the cosmos: better to send a poet to the moon if we ever hope to come close to understand, engineers and test pilots can only be frustrated by their own limitations when trying to explain the unknowable. Where that film succeeded was in how it reinvigorated that adventure of space travel for new audiences, and indicated how terrifying it can be.

That sense of the profound, the intensity of the life-changing experience of seeing all the Earth from a distance, cannot be understated, and proves a centre-point of Lucy in the Sky, telling the true story (or an approximation of it) of  Lisa Nowak, a Nasa astronaut who after a space shuttle mission flew off the deep end threatening to kidnap/harm a love rival in a tempestuous astronaut love triangle. Noah Hawley’s film Lucy in the Sky  posits that Nowak was suffering from an existential crisis having been ‘changed’ by her experience in orbit: essentially leaving her unable to cope with the mundane back on Earth.

lucy1In this I think it succeeds, thanks largely to Portman’s great performance, as she shows herself grasping vainly at life on Earth when all she really wants is to go back up ‘there’ in order to experience again that exhilarating, incredible ‘high’. The film suggests that you can recruit the intellectual and physical Elite, train pilots and engineers for the mechanics and procedures of spaceflight, but cannot really prepare them for the experience and what it might do to them emotionally and spiritually. There is something fragile and broken within Lucy back on Earth, something disconnected from her husband and those around her, something wholly unfulfilling about ordinary life. Maybe this would have been enough for the film- its when it goes on with the crime story elements, telling a soap opera through the lens of the Nasa Elite, that the film falters somewhat. The irony of course is that even some of the most fantastic elements of the story actually turn out to be quite true, or very close to it: I suspect some viewers instantly dismiss some of the wildest stuff as Hollywood invention, not realising how close to the truth it is (much has been changed and Lucy’s story remains very loosely based on that of Lisa, but what surprise many is just what was changed and what wasn’t- I won’t expand upon it here for fear of spoilers, but anyone who watches the film would be encouraged to read up on the true story). 

Ultimately Hawley struggles to balance the profundity with the inanity – the life-changing endeavour of humanity in Space with the mundane everyday strife of messy relationships. It may struggle and fail but I think its worthwhile all the same; at least it raises some interesting questions, even if, like First Man, it fails to arrive at any convincing answers.

 

Armstrong

armArmstrong is a fascinating documentary film about the life of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, and is a welcome companion to Damien Chazelle’s 2018 film First Man that starred Ryan Gosling. That film was rather divisive, likely deliberately so, as it dwelt less on the space program and the mechanics of the Apollo missions and more on Armstrong himself (the film aptly summarised by Mark Kermode as ‘more inner space than outer space’). The problem for First Man was that Armstrong was always a private man, and rather kept his distance from the media, something of a cold fish to anyone outside his inner circle of family and friends. There is a very telling observation in Armstrong that ‘thank God there was no social media back then’, and this resonated with me a great deal. Can you imagine what it would be like, had the first moon landing happened in today’s world? That first man would have been eaten alive by the demands of our modern mass-media world. It was probably bad enough for Armstrong post-Apollo 11, I don’t know how he would have managed to survive something like that now- the demands of the media world today and the added hysterics of social media… it doesn’t bear thinking about. Lacking the dramatic conflicts (albeit largely fictional dramatisation) of films like Apollo 13, First Man initially seemed a cold, distant film, but having seen Armstrong, I think First Man will reward greater on repeat viewing.

Of course the tantalising thing about First Man, and of Armstrong himself, is the sense of mystery about him, because he refused to become a part of the celebrity media circus that he might have been. Part of that mystery, beyond the facts of who he was and his accomplishments, is just how do you survive something like Apollo 11? He became one of the most famous men not just alive, but in all of history- his is a name that will be remembered in the same way as the greatest kings or Pharaohs or the likes of Da Vinci, long after the rest of us, even the most famous people alive today, the musicians or actors or scientists or leaders, are long gone and forgotten.

Which is part of the dichotomy of Armstrong, because although his name will always most chiefly represent all that Apollo achieved, he himself was always clear about his sense of personal good fortune and always referenced all the work of the many thousands of people who got him to the moon. Essentially, of course, being an Astronaut was his job and while its a curious thing to look at it like that, I think it’s important too. He earned his place on Apollo 11 and was ultimately the preferred choice for the first lunar footstep- this was by merit, and he earned it. But it could as easily been someone else through some other twist of chance.

Review: ‘Armstrong’ examines the man behind the moon landingThis documentary has input from his family and freinds to inform much about Armstrong’s personal life that the public only dimly knew, and features a surprising amount of Super-8mm home movie footage of Armstrong and his family. I also found it interesting how much footage existed of Armstrong’s test-flight days- it’s odd to consider his life was being recorded so early on when its historic value would not transpire until much later. But it’s the fairly candid footage of his home life that fascinates, particularly of the 1960s and how that corresponds to its depiction in First Man, which was actually not far off the mark.

Anyone who recalls the awful voiceover on the theatrical version of Blade Runner will be amazed by the excellent narration here by Harrison Ford, who reads speeches and personal letters by Armstrong allowing us to hear the man’s thoughts and insights. Its extremely well read by Ford, infecting it with considerable nuance through pauses and inflection of voice.

On the whole I’d suggest this is a well-balanced and informative film, that tells us a great deal about the man and his achievements without falling into the trap of awe and idolising him. While to some extent Armstrong remains something of a mystery (there always seems to be something ‘unknowable’ about him, so frustrating in First Man) there is some achievement here in distancing the human being from the event that would dominate his life and his place in history.

The Last Man on the Moon (2014)

last1This terrific documentary is a salient reminder of how much the world has changed since the 1960s and the glory days of Apollo. As a lad who grew up fascinated by the space program of that era, it’s hard to express what the future looked like back then, when everything seemed possible. Of course, I was a kid struck by the romantic adventure of going to the moon, I didn’t understand the political expediencies of budgets and a Vietnam War. The future I thought was ahead of us, that I thought we would inherit, was not what eventually transpired.

How can it be that the last time a human left a footprint on the moon, or even left low-Earth orbit, was back in 1972? What happened? How is it that the launch pads and all the NASA infrastructure is now left just rusting in the sun?

Such thoughts are inevitable, and the sentiments considered, watching this fascinating documentary film that is, as the title suggests, chiefly centered upon the life and thoughts of Gene Cernan, the titular last man on the moon, and his adventure on Apollo 17 in 1972. Its a surprisingly candid and emotional film that reveals much of those heady days of the space program, his life that lead to it and the cost to his private life because of it.  Of course there is a lot of ego demonstrated here- Cernan was not the reclusive type like Neil Armstrong was, but there are a few moments towards the end where Cernan reflects at what he lost by being so obsessed with his career. The knowledge that time is indeed finite – and that Cernan himself only had a little time left, as he passed away in 2017- makes his story rather poignant. How does one live anything like an ordinary life having been a part of something as massive as Apollo? When you are one of only twelve people in all of human history to have stepped on the surface of another world?

This documentary doesn’t really have the answers, but it is very informative and quite emotive and beautifully shot. It is indeed a very sobering reminder of what we as a species can do when the political will is there, but also a reminder of what can be lost when we lose our way. Was the expense and effort behind Apollo a folly? What was the point of it all? Will we ever follow in the footsteps of those original twelve? These are questions that rattle around in your head after watching something like this. Its all very inspiring but rather depressing too. The future isn’t what it used to be.