Director Alison Rose and her personal fascination with astronomy made her look for the four British astronomers that proved essential during the US’s space race – Roger the instrument maker, Donald the theoretician, Nick the visionary, and Wal the observer. Having already two documentaries under her wing with the same topic (Galileo’s Son in 2003 and Love at The Twilight Motel in 2009), Rose is on top of her game, and delivers a skillful and emotional portrait of a friendship.
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of their time in California, the four friends meet again in the American Southwest, remembering their past explorations, carefully interlaced with a quick crash course in Astronomy History. They talk to the camera about their pride on being British (incarnated on their huge flag they carried everywhere), the pleasure of going up mountains to observe the stars, religion, technology and, of course, death. By the end, Roger and Donald decide to repeat an extreme hike they did when younger, to see one of America’s natural landmarks.
Far from the easy choice of documenting a friendly reunion and slapping archive all over it to tell her story, Rose goes further with her decision to film the hike and conclude her film with it. Star Men becomes then much more than a film about Astronomy, or past achievements; it rises above the ordinary, portraying these men that simultaneously refuse to come to terms with their age and also peacefully expect death. Their different characters give the documentary a specific flavour; from Roger’s tantrums about manned space missions to Nick’s pragmatism, these are not the usual pedestal-high figures so common in films about the scientific community. Most of them come from a working class background. Their PhDs and American experience did not give them any superiority complex; they were just happy to be able to get paid to do what they loved.
A mix of interviews, archive images and new moments, Star Men is accessible even to those outside the scientific community. Despite its obnoxious minimalist soundtrack (reminiscent of every single documentary or drama film about space of the noughties) it is a rare treat ready to be savoured, its only flaw being the fact that fortunately nothing terrible happened during its production. To hear these men, geniuses since their teen years, speak about death with the satisfaction of having made important contributions to their field of study, can move even the trail rocks of the Grand Canyon. For them, scientists at heart, death is essential to progress; only by dying can old ideas be replaced with new ones. This, they are aware, means they too will have to die for their ideas to be “defeated” and replaced by younger generations. The calm and pride with which they accept their ultimate cosmic fate is nothing short of inspiring.
Star Men was screened at the Cambridge Film Festival and does not have yet an UK general release date; to catch up on upcoming screenings please check http://www.inigofilms.com/starmen/screenings.html