At some point in their lives, most every kid wishes to be an astronaut, that awesome and daring job where one explores the unknowns of space. Children thrive on the sense of adventure, stature and challenge that comes with the mythos of the heroic astronaut, an admiration that usually survives those cynical steps into adulthood. In literature and movies, astronauts represent the bravery and frontier spirit of humankind, willing to take the first steps into the unknown of our vast and awe-inspiring universe.
That’s why it’s extremely easy to list sci-fi movies centered on them—the more adventuresome aspects of what it truly means to venture into space runs counter to the tedious scientific work that goes into the real deal. In honor of Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, we decided to list the top five non-sci-fi movies about astronauts.
This affable Clint Eastwood-directed comedy finds a quartet of elderly engineers and pilots (Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, James Garner) who were once trained to be astronauts during the ’50s heyday of the space race, but were upstaged by the infamous monkey that was shot into the stars instead, being called back to finally realize their dreams when a satellite with old tech that only they can understand malfunctions. Of course the story is chock full of easy “they’re too old” jokes, from them struggling to meet the physical requirements, to easy points about the elderly’s inability to grasp modern tech, but the powerhouse cast injects some well-needed empathy and energy into the project. Eastwood’s unique ability to patiently transition from one tone to the other paves the way for an inspiring space drama during the third act, where we can feel the awe and wonder that comes from these characters finally realizing their lifelong dreams in the twilight of their years.
If you’re looking for an all-encompassing documentary that covers the excitement, anxiety, and the eventual celebration around the 1969 moon landing, look no further than director David Sington’s endlessly inspirational In the Shadow of the Moon. Sington presents the tale via an Errol Morris-style series of interviews with figures intimately connected with the moon mission, utilizing extreme close-ups and direct eye contact with the camera in order to personalize the inside tale of how this miracle was executed in the first place. This footage is intercut with archive material that encapsulates the excitement and anticipation felt around the world. It all culminates in a rousing tearjerker of a sequence that shows Earth’s joy and celebration upon hearing Neal Armstrong’s eponymous words after taking his first steps on the moon. (For a more cerebral documentary about the subject, check out the equally effective For All Mankind.)
Of course no one should watch Gravity in order learn any scientific facts about how an astronaut operates in the dangerous vacuum of space. Alfonso Cuaron’s nail-biting thriller about an astronaut (Sandra Bullock) struggling to make her way back to Earth after debris destroys her station should be consumed as not much more than a marvelous cinematic theme park ride, albeit with some minor symbolism around the existential concepts of death and rebirth in order to give the project some thematic heft. As Neil Degrasse Tyson and many other scientists delight in pointing out, Gravity’s priority is action over realism, leading to a misconception that it’s sci-fi at its core. But the premise doesn’t take place in a future setting, there aren’t any aliens, and as much as the science is stretched, it’s still based on established tech that NASA uses today. As far as its relation to real-life astronauts is concerned, at least it reaffirms, quite bluntly, that space is no friend to the human anatomy, and that anyone willing to venture into that death trap deserve our full respect.
Text books tend to focus on the .1 percent of the time when everything goes according to plan and the missions are accomplished without a hitch, ignoring the 99.9 percent of instances where they fail miserably. An insanely high level of malfunction and breakage is the name of the game when it comes to space travel, though, where even the slightest miscalculation can result in disaster. A seemingly endless series of failures, inspiring more and more tenacity in those involved with the program, is how we got to the stars in the first place. Ron Howard’s classic procedural/thriller centered on the Apollo 13 moon mission that ended in a race for time to save the astronauts onboard after a malfunction with their pod showcases these brave scientists’ go-for-broke inventive spirits while presenting a captivating thriller in the process. The attention to detail as far as the scientific solutions for the problem are concerned create a realistic setting, while the heartfelt performances led by Tom Hanks’ astronaut hero Jim Lovell provided the irresistible Oscar-bait.
Writer/director Philip Kaufman’s masterful three-plus-hour origin story of America’s space program and the bunch of crazy pilots who dared to put their lives on the line in order to realize it is the quintessential astronaut biopic. The public has an image of the astronaut being a calm and calculated person of science. That might be more true today, but during the inception of the space program in the ’50s, the first men to venture into the stars were rascally daredevil pilots who couldn’t care less about sticking it to the Russkies or the noble conquest of furthering humankind. They were boys who were in for the most expensive pissing contest in history in order to boast about who stayed in orbit the longest. As much as Kaufman obviously admires these trailblazers, brought to life by an impressive cast that includes Ed Harris and Sam Shephard, he doesn’t shy away from showing their true natures, while holding an honest contrast against the wholesome, god-fearing, all-American heroes the media made them out to be at the time. This narrative approach works better than a propagandistic circle jerk one might expect from such a drama, since the bravery showcased by these men despite their personal shortcomings allows us to admire them even more. If you have time for only one movie to prepare you for First Man, make it this one. (Since The Right Stuff ends at the beginning of the moon mission, they can work as an apt double feature.)