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Life Through the Lens: MAN-ipulated for too long

Brad Pitt appears in a scene from ‘Ad Astra.” (AP Photo)

“I will rely on those closest to me, and I will share their burdens, as they share mine. I will live and love.”

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Every man has a vision of manliness in their mind. Where it comes from, I’ll never know. Tradition? Culture? Chuck Norris? This vision is full of strength, resilience, hard-work, sweat, beards, flannel, protection, vengeance, sports, bacon, bringing home that bacon, discipline, tough love, firm hand-shakes, guns, alcohol, conquests, explosions. On top of that, a “man” is slightly-aggressive by nature, vocal and confident, emotionally shallow, distant in most relationships, without weakness, independent, guarded… all with a natural wood finish applied to appear even more manly.

I believe most men know in their steel-plated hearts that this is not accurate — that it is a lie breathed into boys and fanned to life into young men. BUT, even if it is understood, it is still a self-induced-pressure — a cultural undercurrent — an invisible force bigger than any silly understanding. Understanding does not trump feeling, and men feel the burden.

I have a great example in my father. He is manly but not cliche. I’ve had great examples in teachers, friends, and elders. I’ve seen real men and how they operate. I’ve witnessed extreme love and forgiveness from a man. I’ve been gifted tenderness and empathy from a man. I’ve experienced selflessness and thoughtfulness from a man. I’ve been blessed with tangible examples of REAL MEN, yet I still struggle with being MAN-ipulated.

I want to be freed from formula; I want to be a GOOD PERSON, intentional and virtuous, not simply a “man.” I hold tight to some of what tradition would call manly, but I reject those things which simply lead to isolation and deception. A real man is vulnerable, and I long to be vulnerable. To be real. To be authentic. To be passionate. To be humble. To be empathetic. My honor takes a back seat to honoring others. Respect due to me comes a distant second to respecting those around me. Being right is displaced by being righteous.

I encourage all men to shake off the chains of MAN-agement, the tradition of MAN-ufacturing falsehood, the exhaustion of being MAN-handled. Our new call: MAN-ifest truth, MAN-euver into real-relationship, and be the MAN-telpiece of faithfulness.

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Ad Astra begins in the near future, a future where Earth’s resources have been plundered, and now Earth’s countries are able to travel to new lengths, new planets and plunder those resources, as well. Nothing is safe from humanity’s grasp.

Now that we can explore “the outer limits,” the bar has been raised. If we can go this far, why not go further? In an effort to push the bounds, to expand the reaches, to find new life, a manned crew was sent to Neptune. This was supposed to be humanity’s crowning achievement, but they never returned. They were lost and supposed-dead. On this mission was America’s greatest space-pioneer, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones).

Sixteen years later, the world has become more desperate. On top of the world pillaging, now we are experiencing extreme surges, disabling electronics and threatening life as we-know it. Behind closed doors and in whispers, the new theory is this: Clifford McBride is alive and is causing this. His mission, the “Lima Project,” included enough technology to cause this malfunction and surge, but why?

In a desperate attempt to quell this storm, the help of Maj. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is enlisted. Not only is he a capable and experienced space-traveler, he is also Clifford McBride’s son. The new mission: get Roy to the last remaining space-communications base on Mars and send a direct message to the Lima Project : “Dad, stop this!”

Roy McBride is a stud among colts, famous for his unshakable demeanor and coolness under pressure. Nothing shakes this man! His standard response to his mental-state is: “I’m calm, steady. I slept well, eight point two hours, no bad dreams. I am ready to go, ready to do my job to the best of my ability. I am focused only on the essentials, to the exclusion of all else. I will make only pragmatic decisions. I will not allow myself to be distracted. I will not allow my mind to linger on that which isn’t important. I will not rely on anyone or anything. I will not be vulnerable to mistakes.”

Roy has adopted and perfected this lifestyle by following his father’s example. His father went further than any man in history because he was rigid, unswerving, and uncompromising. His father never showed weakness; Roy has sought to be the same. He admits early on that he lives with his eyes “always on the exit,” always looking past, looking on, looking forward. He lives knowing that he would make his father proud.

What happens when Roy comes face to face with his definition of manhood? Defensive, delusional, destructive… is that what a man looks like?

Instead of creating a science-fiction film, director James Gray has created a very accessible and personal film. It is about discovery, the personal variety more than the outer-space type. It is one man’s attempt to reconnect to his father, to redefine himself, to reimagine his place. For all of its special effects and grand visions, it is touching and nearby. Instead of the vastness of the universe, the film digs into the closeness of life and love. I love this theme!

The film includes many moments of internal dialogue. This exercise in film form is common, but it is striking in this film. The honesty and openness spoken by Roy is affecting; it shows his growth as only private thoughts can.

The cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema is wonderful. It is beautiful without feeling contrived. The visual effects are much the same: believable and consistent without feeling off-putting.

As I’ve said many times recently, Brad Pitt is my favorite actor, and this is one of his career bests! He portrays the character of Roy with an expert touch. He is confident yet empty, calm yet uneven, liberated yet lonely… it is quite the complicated character. Pitt is provided with many moments to breathe life into this fictional man, and he does so with care. Plus, as a dad of four little ones, I am a sucker for a story of a boy and his father. Pshh, it gets me right in the ticker.

This movie sends me back to a recent book favorite of mine: “The Sirens of Titan” by Kurt Vonnegut. The book follows a man searching for wealth, pride, family, legacy, and meaning, and his search leads him to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. By the end, he has squandered everything, far from anyone or anything, removed from all possibilities. As the book closes, he utters these words, “It took us that long to realize that a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.” I challenge you to find a better statement.

“Manliness” is being prepared and willing to love whoever is around to be loved.

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REPORT CARD: Ad Astra

Grade: A

Comment: Ambitious Scope – intimate consequences

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