In Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys (2000), the chisel-jawed actor-director and fellow geriatric pals Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner realise their life’s dream, blasting into space to rescue a falling satellite. Keeping their feet on terra firma and throwing down intergalactic knowledge rather than punches, the Star Men of filmmaker and astronomy enthusiast Alison E. Rose’s intimate and yet expansive documentary have spent a lifetime gazing skyward in wonderment.
Fifty years after a road trip across the American south-west, four internationally recognised experts in their respective fields reunite to remember and retrace steps which revolutionised the study of the universe. Seeing weary septuagenarians arriving to Los Angeles with ancient backpacks and sleeping mats after a long journey runs counter to the convention of intrepid travellers embarking on a new adventure; however, despite their age Donald Lynden-Bell, Roger Griffin, Nick Woolf and Wal Sargent still exude an infectious passion for learning.
Whilst a 90-minute documentary on old astronomers may sound a tad dry to the uninitiated, Rose’s subjects are each charming in their own way and their retelling of a life dedicated to the study of the very big picture is told with an admirable humility. Enormously complicated principles are thankfully distilled to manageable quantities for the simpletons among us. They may not be rocket scientists but the intelligence of the old friends is ever apparent without there being any sense of patronising superiority and that is their credit. Sepia-toned family photos and memories recall differing upbringings and amusing anecdotes told along the road speak to the odd chip on the shoulder here, the slight clash of characters there but by and large proceedings remain amiable throughout.
Star Men meanders a little towards its end, feeling a little repetitive as one observatory leads to another to another Extremely interesting is a fleeting meditation on the science vs. religion debate which yields some surprising opinions and moments of reflection on mortality and the insignificance of man in the enormity of space and time may point toward Christopher Nolan levels of brain-ache but here resonates with the self-effacing testimony of unsung pioneers who have been there, done that and most definitely got the T-shirt. A quote from T. S. Eliot on the nature of exploration to conclude is rather self-indulgent on Rose’s part but Star Men certainly does demonstrate that “the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens