These are two good, entertaining Hollywood movies that, as one likely knows, have been nominated for several Oscars each, including best picture. I saw both last fall with an academic friend—a brilliant Africanist and specialist in the domain of development economics—with whom I often go to movies. My friend is culturally refined and with highbrow tastes in everything but, when it comes to cinema, has a marked preference for Hollywood blockbusters (and over any French film whatsoever; if it weren’t for her, I probably wouldn’t see half the movies I do in the Hollywood mega-production genre). When we exit the cinoche and exchange initial reactions to the film just seen, I’ll usually say something like “ouais, c’était pas mal” (yeah, it wasn’t bad), whereas she will embark on a complex analysis and with all sorts of insights, and which invariably leads to an interesting discussion. On The Martian (in France: Seul sur Mars), we were in entire agreement as to the film’s merits, both as entertainment and the larger, subliminal messages conveyed. On the latter, we identified four.
The first is the praise bestowed on science and scientists—astrophysicists, botanists, all of them—and with particular attention to those who think originally—outside the box—the kind of research scientist who risks having his or her precociously cutting edge papers heavily critiqued, when not rejected outright, by mainstream scientific journals in the peer review process (a point made by my friend, who has had rather more experience with this than I). Seeing scientists extolled in the way Ridley Scott’s film does is gratifying in the present period, characterized as it is by increasing obscurantism in large parts of the world—including the United States, e.g. climate change denial—the domination of the world of finance—which is sucking away top mathematical minds—budget cuts for research, and short-term thinking.
The second takeaway from the film is the celebration of a multicultural society—here, that of the United States—and, implicitly, of a liberal immigration regime. The teams of scientists in the film are straight out of a Benetton ad. One reason—perhaps the principal one—why the US has been able to maintain its edge in science and technology has been its liberal immigration policies over the past five decades, which has made America a magnet for talent throughout the world (America’s great, well-endowed research universities also play a role, obviously).
A third takeaway is the dead-on accurate portrayal of the scientific milieu and of the conditions in which the scientists in the film work, with an absence of hierarchy and the only thing mattering being excellence and results. This particularly struck my friend, who has spent her career in the French scientific research establishment, which, while producing excellent work, is riven by steep hierarchies (notably age) and clientelism (and money-wise is less well-endowed than in the US). In America—but not so much in France—if you’re young and good, you will be catapulted over your less good elders. My friend hopes that the movie will be an inspiration to young people—and particularly women—who are contemplating scientific careers.
The fourth implicit message of the film is international cooperation. NASA, despite its massive brain power and resources, could not bring Matt Damon back from Mars on its own. It needed the help of other countries, notably China, and their scientific know-how. America can do great things but not all by itself. And that’s okay.
Another good thing about the movie is the soundtrack. Great pop songs from the 1970s!
On how scientists evaluated the film, my friend sent me an interview with planetologist François Forget, “Peut-on vraiment rester ‘Seul sur Mars’?” in the CNRS’s online magazine. His verdict: the film was inaccurate or implausible on several points but largely got the science right. And he enjoyed it.
As for Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (Le Pont des espions), we both liked this one too (as did, for the record, three well-known Parisian intellos with whom I discussed the film on social media a couple of months back). It’s a riveting geopolitical thriller, even if one knows how it’s going to end, which impeccably depicts—down to the smallest detail—its historical period. One feels transported back to the late ’50s-early ’60s. And it conveys well the political climate in the US during the height of the Cold War, when the American public viewed the Soviet Union and communism in the same way as it does radical Islamist jihadism today (though the Soviet Union—with its nuclear arsenal and superpower military—did pose a threat to the United States in a way that Al-Qaida and the Islamic State objectively do not). To merely provide disinterested legal counsel to a suspected Soviet spy could get one labeled a traitor. Despite Spielberg’s attention to detail, though, there was a little error that most people, myself included, did not pick up on. The American doctoral student in Berlin—whom Tom Hanks’s character goes to rescue—crosses into the Soviet zone as the wall is going up. The weather is cold and there are snow flurries. But the Berlin Wall went up in August, i.e. in the summer. Spielberg no doubt wanted to depict a Cold War both figuratively and literally… Also, it took a few weeks for the wall to be built, whereas in the film it looked to happen over a couple of days. There’s also another weather-related goof in the pic, mais c’est petit et pas bien grave. It a fine film and totally recommended.