First Man, Hidden Figures, and the Race for Space

Buzz Aldrin Apollo 11 Moon landingThe latest bout of 20th century nostalgia has been taking us back to the 1960s. Something about violent social conflicts, the constant threat of international war, and egomaniacs spending millions of dollars on space travel seems to strike a chord with artists and audiences in 2019. I wonder why.

Snark aside, I like this trend. The story of space exploration is a story of disasters, near-misses and over-spending. But it also brings out the best in us: adventure, imagination, and collaboration. In this post, we’ll look at three different ways that story has been told.

Here’s the soundtrack for this discussion. Public Service Broadcasting has been, well, broadcasting since 2009. They use an eclectic mix of archive recordings, synthesizers, flugelhorns, and something I would love to know more about, called a vibraslap. It’s music for nerds, and they do it brilliantly.

Back in 2016, they released The Race For Space, with tracks every event from the Apollo 1 disaster to JFK and Valentina Tereshkova. Mixed in with dance beats, you can hear the original sounds of the space missions: a nervous news announcer’s voice, a crowd applauding, everyone in the NASA control room holding their breath.

They used to sell the album at the Science Museum in London, when you emerged from the Cosmonauts exhibition. It’s thrilling music; but you need a little bit of background knowledge to enjoy it. However, the average listener is unlikely to have the history of the Space Race quite so fresh and immediate in their mind.

Which brings us to First Man. This film does a pretty decent job of explaining the timeline, even for people who know very little about the moon landings. It’s slow-moving, but beautiful, in a sort of gloomy arthouse style. And…

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This film stars Ryan Gosling. You will notice Ryan Gosling, because he appears in almost every shot, playing Neil Armstrong.

Now, I really have nothing against Ryan Gosling (in fact, this blog takes a decidedly pro-Gosling stance). But after 2 hours and 21 minutes, even I was tired of looking at him. First Man might as well have been named One Man.

There are other characters in the movie, of course. But they only exist in order to provide adversity or tragic backstory. They are not real people.

His family makes him miserable. His friends can’t talk to him. His colleagues laugh at him and hold him back, until he proves them all wrong. Even Buzz Aldrin, played by Corey Stoll, is turned into a mean and rather dull character. (Since Buzz is still alive and kicking in 2019, we have direct and current evidence that this is incorrect. I bet he was a hoot, even when you were cooped up in a lunar excursion module with him.)

Most notably of all, every woman in this film is incredibly stupid. (Could we expect anything else from Chazelle, the director who brought us Whiplash and La La Land?) The women who ran calculations, managed the first computers, and wrote the flawless guidance software for the Apollo missions are almost entirely invisible.

We only get one, quick glance of a gaggle of black women standing at the end of a corridor… before the camera inevitably pans back to Ryan Gosling.

Fortunately, Hidden Figures exists. This is the story of the women who helped send humans to the moon.

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It’s also a brilliantly observed portrait of the hatred and prejudice which black women faced (and still sometimes face) in the United States. It shows the price that women pay for ever showing how angry this makes them. And it shows their intelligence and strength.

Does that all sound a bit worthy? It’s not. Hidden Figures made me laugh out loud, while First Man couldn’t even summon a smile. The plot cracks along, bringing the same level of suspense and excitement to a debate about which bathroom to use and the moon landing itself.

In 2019, despite the proven brilliance of women, Hollywood studios still persist in the idea that a film with all-female leads is a risk. It isn’t. More of this, please – and perhaps just a little less of Ryan Gosling’s face.

 

 

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