By Jake Pitre
For a man to be in touch with his emotions remains a potent cultural concern. As GQ recently proclaimed, we are in the age of the “new masculinity.” The magazine’s editor-in-chief Will Welch wrote that the issue was “intended as an exploration of how we can all become more generous, honest, open, and loving humans — especially if we rebuild masculinity on a foundation of traits and values like generosity, honesty, openness, and love.” A bit redundant, but the notion is apt for an era defined in large part by the transformation of masculine ideals.
Ad Astra, James Gray’s latest film about a man on a journey of obsession and self-discovery, offers a poignant response to this shift, as it’s predicated on a crisis of identity ushering in a new version of masculinity in defiance of traditional stoicism. Interestingly, and perhaps indicative of just how confused men are right now, some critics, like the Guardian’s Steve Rose, lamented the film as an example of “toxic masculinity,” that catch-all term for seemingly harmful representations of maleness that has lost most of its meaning due to its misuse in cases like this. “Brad Pitt’s saga is the latest sci-fi film to fall back on stereotypes of heroic men and emotional women,” the sub-headline reads. The argument doesn’t get much deeper than that, suggesting that Pitt’s “lone man saving the world” story arc is just another in a long history of “lone man saving the world” story arcs. While this is somewhat true on the surface, in that it more or less describes the film’s plot, it also reads as though Rose didn’t actually see the film.
Pitt’s character, Roy McBride, is a major in the US Space Command, and when the film opens, the solar system is being threatened by massive power surges. He is told the surges are originating from the Lima Project, a discovery mission headed by his father, who hasn’t been heard from in 16 years. Roy is the stoic type: professional, rational, and a stereotypical manly presence. He is, seemingly, remarkably detached from his emotions, barely reacting to his wife, Eve (Liv Tyler), deciding to leave him. He is a Career Man, devoted to the Space Command and presumably indifferent to everything else. When he’s told that his father may still be alive, though, you can practically see Roy’s eyes twitch. He denies it as a possibility, not so much because of any scientific or rational reasoning, but due to his discomfort in confronting unresolved issues..
And yet, he’s drawn to the mission to put an end to the Lima Project’s catastrophic surges. Sure, maybe in part to help save the world or whatever, but mostly because it may bring him back to his father — to the man who made him what he is. In short, he aims to reconnect with himself by reconnecting with his father, whether he is conscious of that impulse or not.
Ad Astra is one of many projects in recent years to deal with crises of masculinity, reflected in an increased awareness of how important emotional intelligence is to the issues caused by historical expectations surrounding the idea of “manliness.” Men are being asked — some for the very first time — to be in touch with their emotions in order to, well, make society a better place. As Welch says later in his editor’s letter, “before you can feel what others are feeling, you must first be in touch with how you feel. In other words, you have to have empathy for yourself. And then you can turn that hard-won superpower outward and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s only natural for our art to reflect this concern, and you can find notes of it in everything from the ego-driven failures of Adam Driver’s theatre director husband in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story to, yes, Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of an abused loner comedian in Joker.
By portraying maladjusted men struggling to come to terms with their place in the world and the emotions that drive them, some of these films can be misunderstood as simply endorsing their characters’ toxic behaviors. On the contrary, I see these characters as thoughtful and evocative expressions of this anxiety, each one an acknowledgement of the power that the cult of masculinity has on anyone raised as male. One of the most touching moments of the year in cinema for me remains when, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), after dealing with his fear of performing well, breaks down into tears on the set of a Western TV show when a younger actress praises his work. It’s funny on some level to see Leo tear up, but more than anything, it’s a genuinely moving representation of a man facing not only his waning relevance, but also his perception of a masculine ideal.
While a film like Joker plays with enough vague notions of masculinity and identity that seemingly any ideology can be mapped onto it, the real impact of Ad Astra has to do with its lessons about accepting the pain in your life — even the depression and anxiety — and learning how to share it with others. It might feel counterintuitive, but Ad Astra shows how “burdening” others with your pain can be the path to personal and collective growth. Roy’s problem is that he holds in his emotions and doesn’t, or can’t, confront them.
Finally, after finding his father near the end of the film, he realizes that his inability to connect with his emotions has held him back from connecting with those he cares about, particularly his wife. His father is incredibly cruel, even indifferent, having lost his mind in many ways, but remaining lucid enough to belittle Roy. It confirms for Roy that the emotional hangups his father left behind have been corrosive and harmful to his own psyche and by extension, to those around him. In other words, his renewed optimism at the end of the film — his decision to keep going, to fight against his feelings of abandonment and cynicism, even to reconnect with his wife — comes from the implication that humanity is alone in the universe, and that we therefore must be open and vulnerable with each other. Nobody gains anything by keeping it all in, by not sharing, by being a “man” and an island. Sometimes, you have to travel to Neptune and save the world to figure that out. Hopefully, Ad Astra suggests, it won’t be as daunting for the rest of us.