Friday, January 4, 2019

“First Man” and “The Wife”: A Tale of Two High-Flying Achievers (and their spouses)

First Man, based on a biography of Neil Armstrong, is the story of the first human being to walk on the moon. The Wife, a screen adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel, concerns a woman who lives in her husband’s shadow. At first blush, the real-life story of a celebrated man and the fictional tale of an overlooked woman wouldn’t seem to have much in common. But for me these two films (one of which I saw on an airplane and the other in a hotel room) spark a lot of deep thoughts about the role played by gender in two twentieth-century success stories.

As portrayed by Ryan Gosling, who tamps down his usual sparkle for this role, Neil Armstrong is the epitome of the strong silent type. A military man and an apparently fearless test pilot, he is a natural for the early astronaut corps. There is never any question about his competence and courage. His only apparent weakness lies in a deep-seated inability to talk a good game. He’s just not gifted (in the way of someone like John Glenn) when it comes to schmoozing the press and the public. When called on to make a grand pronouncement about his role in the upcoming moon mission, he can only stammer out a slightly awkward statement about being pleased to be chosen. Fortunately, the American people are charmed by his modesty.

According to the film, Armstrong’s natural reticence grew more intense when his young daughter died, at age 2, of a brain tumor. He mourns her in silence, unable to share his emotions even with his loyal wife Janet (played by Claire Foy, who seems to be making a career of playing both English queens and American historical icons like Ruth Bader Ginsburg). When Armstrong takes mankind’s first steps onto the lunar surface, it’s little Karen he’s thinking about, not the glory he’s bringing to the United States of America. Keeping one’s feelings locked inside is a classic male reaction to personal tragedy, but Armstrong seems to be an extreme case. The key moment in the movie comes when, going off to be launched into space, he tries to avoid any parting words to his two young sons. That’s when meek, supportive Janet finally fights back, firmly reminding him of what’s at stake: “You're gonna sit them down. Both of them. And you're going to prepare them for the fact that you might not ever come home. You're doing that. You. Not me. I'm done.”  (No wonder the marriage didn’t survive, though  officially it lasted for 38 years.)

 The Wife opens with a long-married couple in bed. Husband Harry (Jonathan Pryce) initiates sex, mostly because he’s too keyed-up to sleep. Both he and his compliant wife Joan (Glenn Close) know that in the wee hours of the following morning, Harry may be told that he’s won the Nobel Prize for literature. The movie contains flashbacks to the early years of their marriage, but primarily it follows the couple on the trip to Stockholm where he will claim his prize, one that he does not exactly deserve. The Wife is effective because it is not the obvious story of a heel and a doormat. These two care about each other, and – even when the cracks in their union become all too apparent – they can turn in a flash from fury to mutual joy or genuine concern. Still, in an era marked by #MeToo, this is a film that recognizes how a woman’s power can be subverted, even as she permits herself to be used and abused in the name of love. 

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