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How Two Films Show Men In Fear Of Turning Out Like Their Dads

Film
Photos by Francois Duhamel and Wilson Webb

On Brad Pitt in 'Ad Astra' and Adam Driver in 'Marriage Story'

How many movies have a scene in which a woman wanly begs a man to please not rob that bank, climb that mountain, fight that battle, only for the man to grimly tell her, Baby, it's what I've gotta do?


Baby, I gotta go to outer space: In so many astronaut movies, the stakes of our protagonists' quests are measured by the individual hearts they must break for The Good of All Mankind. In Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey achieves escape velocity from the earthly responsibilities represented by his daughter—transcendence has its own gravitational pull, as does adrenaline for the action-movie cop strapping on his gun before his wife is even awake, as does discovery for the adventure-epic explorer whose wife waits by the window for his letters, and so on and so on.

This fall has been a banner season for astronauts "slip[ping] the surly bonds of earth," including a couple of gender-swapped examples. In Lucy in the Sky, NASA's Natalie Portman is so stimulated by her space-walk that she never comes down, blowing up her marriage on the bad bet that boning down with John Hamm in the bed of a pickup truck is the closest terrestrial equivalent to "the high untrespassed sanctity of space." In Alice Winocour's Proxima, which premiered alongside Lucy in the Sky at September's Toronto International Film Festival, astrophysicist and single mom Eva Green feels guilt and excitement as she prepares for the flight that will take her away from her young daughter. And in this fall's Ad Astra, out now, Brad Pitt hurtles toward the edges of the solar system, moping over flashbacks of his failed marriage to Liv Tyler—a passive marker of his sacrifice, whose sketchy role consists entirely of bemoaning his distance from her. He is flying away, but Ad Astra tweaks the formula by emphasizing that he is flying toward something as well—someone, in fact. Pitt's Roy McBride's mission, to investigate a series of power surges threatening the very stability of the Earth, puts him onto a collision course with his father, out there on a spaceship orbiting Neptune. The same father, Cliff McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who, years ago, chose a one-way ticket to the stars over his family.

Yes, yes, Roy has to cross the asteroid belt just to finally have a real conversation with his father—it's an easy joke, and a good one. But Ad Astra's opposing poles of escape and obligation, of abandonment and responsibility, fit the cyclical shape of this movie about fathers and sons—about the way that we are fated all our lives to orbit around our dads.


Brad Pitt in spacesuit looking out spaceship window Photos by Francois Duhamel


The vision of deep space conjured by Ad Astra filmmaker James Gray and his team is disorienting for being so familiar. Like this spring's High Life, the technology has an analog tactility, and the world-building emphasizes the languor and banality of life under late capitalism. There's a Hudson News at the airport on the moon, bureaucratic chatter on interstellar shuttles, and a Martian customs stamp dispensed by a chatty Natasha Lyonne. (Wherever you go, there you are.) The film was shot, by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, on 35mm: Celluloid remains a better format than digital for capturing deep blacks, and so Ad Astra's visuals inspire in equal parts awe and gloom at the fathomless infinitude. Over the course of the film, as Pitt gets so far from the sun that it becomes just another star in the night sky, light sources become progressively less natural, more artificial, bouncing off the harsh metallic grays and off-whites of spacesuits and spacecrafts, evoking a kind of permanent seasonal affective disorder.

This depressive atmosphere (or lack thereof) is keyed to Pitt's performance. Throughout the film, Roy submits to psychological evaluations, in which he narrates his inner state to a computer and has his equilibrium algorithmically assessed; he constantly affirms that he is present in the moment and in his surroundings, aware of others and his relation to them. These repeated assurances—he's fine, he's fine, he's fine—become less convincing with every mechanical repetition (if you have to ask, you already know the answer), and are delivered by Pitt in the dour, deadened voice of a man resigned to going through the motions of happiness.

Writing about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for this publication a couple of months ago, I said that Brad Pitt emblematized a model of masculinity that "seems equally a model of manly competence and a near-tragic loner." Moreso than Tarantino's cocky L.A. story, Ad Astra, with its vast negative space, shows the hollowness of Pitt's self-containment, the smallness of it. It is in one of these psych evaluations that Pitt's voice finally breaks, shows a little bit of desperation and resentment and maybe anger at his own circumstances, as Roy confesses to the computer: "I don't want to be like my dad."


Brad Pitt on space ship in red lighting Photos by Francois Duhamel


This, as they say, hits. Here is a man—a character journeying among the stars, an actor who is himself a star, take your pick—well more than halfway through a life that has taken him so far from where he started, discovering himself powerless to reinvent himself, still in the shadow of his father.

Like his hero dad, Roy is devoted to his work, which is not a passion but a duty: He is renowned within Ad Astra's version of the Space Force for a heart which, no matter the nervy circumstances, never races past the point of competence; he is calm, collected, and ever mission-oriented. Through the glimpses we get of Tommy Lee Jones, and the revered Cliff's list of pioneering accomplishments, we see the father as an ideal to aspire to, as well as a stern, absolute figure in his son's life—a presence as remote and dominating as God. But when Roy finally gets to the rings of Neptune, he finds his guiding star on the blink. Jones, normally the most astringent of actors—a perfect father-figure for Pitt in this minimalist mode of his career—alternates between modes of messianic fury and teary, raggedy pathos; he's playing a man so uncompromising, he's finally eaten himself up from the inside.

Roy must have begun to suspect this, to sense it through own weariness. In Pitt's stoic, stunted performance, we see a man who has built himself in his father's image, in ways knowing and unknowing. In the way he moves—so coolly he might freeze—Pitt conveys Roy's fatigue. He stands in for a generation of men whose fluency in the therapeutic language of psych check-ins has not saved them from tracing the same old patterns. Baby, I gotta go.

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In 2005, Noah Baumbach, then in his mid-30s, wrote and directed The Squid and the Whale, drawing heavily from his own parents' divorce during his teen years. He focused particularly on how another accomplished, forbidding father (Jeff Daniels, as a bearded author like Baumbach's experimental novelist dad Jonathan) cast another long shadow over his bright young son (Jesse Eisenberg), who over the course of the film becomes, heartbreakingly, a burgeoning douchebag in his impatience to be an intellect like his father.

The film was quippy, and its perspectives were balanced; it was eviscerating and finally forgiving of its characters—the self-aware work of someone who had learned from the past in order not to repeat it. The year it came out, Baumbach married Jennifer Jason Leigh; the couple had a son shortly before Leigh filed for divorce in 2010. Baumbach's new film Marriage Story, which I also saw in Toronto and which opens in a limited theatrical release on November 6 before arriving on Netflix in early December, tracks the dissolution of the union between avant-garde theater director Charlie (Adam Driver) and actor Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), the parents of a young son. Many of their irreconcilable differences seem like exaggerated versions of Baumbach and Leigh's: he's an auteur, and she's a performer; he's a New Yorker, and she's part of a Los Angeles acting family; his work skews highbrow, and hers lowbrow.

As The Squid and the Whale gains poignancy for its evocation of a middle-class nuclear-family childhood as paradise lost, Marriage Story does for its telescoped arc of love and disillusionment. Charlie and Nicole are already separating as the film begins, but the opening scene is a montage scored to his-and-hers voiceovers: Charlie's list of "What I love about Nicole" and Nicole's "What I love about Charlie." That he cries at movies; that he misses his stop on the subway when he's reading a good book; that he works so hard at, and takes such joy in, being a dad; and that he's made a life for himself by breaking free of the cycles of alcoholism and violence in his parents' house. Which makes it all the more painful when, during the big actor-showcase screaming argument centerpiece, Nicole twists the knife into Charlie: You're just like your dad.


Scarlett Johansson, young boy, and Adam Driver laying in bed Photo by Wilson Webb


This, too, hits. That the fate of the sensitive, scarred writer-director of The Squid and the Whale is to go on to make a movie in which his author-surrogate is accused of being just like his dad feels something like a family curse. In Ad Astra, before his own confession, Pitt muses on his own inherited capacity for "rage"; as the fight with Nicole rages on in Marriage Story, Charlie punches a wall. For a character who is willfully stoppering his basest masculine impulses, you can't do better than Adam Driver, but more than any old-school toxicity, the connection between Roy and Charlie, and their tragedy, is their detachment from their relationships, the home they find at work and their unbridgeable distance from the domestic sphere.

In contrast to Roy, and presumably to his middle-American father, Charlie is an artist, professionally introspective—an urban millennial who's built his theater company into an enlightened, open community. But this modern man runs up against some very traditional limitations, as he comes to see how helpless he is around the house. Charlie loves his son, and takes pride in being present, but one of the faultlines that the movie opens up in his and Nicole's relationship is the way in which this ostensibly two-career household slid out of balance, with the demands of his theater work taken seriously as non-negotiable, and her professional opportunities only indulged when their demands of travel or time wouldn't interfere with family life. They live in NYC, so she doesn't work in L.A. Charlie and Nicole begin Marriage Story committed to uncoupling amicably, but throughout the film, their expensive lawyers say the unsayable, laying bare the subtext that Charlie and Nicole were happy enough to gloss over back when they were happy together: That it wasn't an equal marriage, that Charlie was the careerist and Nicole was the helpmeet—that his preferred pronoun was "me," and Nicole's was "we." Once the two of them are established as single parents trying to split custody, Charlie discovers that this was true, and that it has consequences.

In an essay published in The New York Times in 2017, Andrew Rannells described the "depressing bachelor pad" his father moved into when, at age 61, he and the actor's mother decided to divorce:

The walls were beige and so was the carpet. The furniture he had picked out was too large and too dark. The place was filled with stuff, yet looked empty.
He was trying to make it a home but didn't know how. [...] [W]e ate sandwiches. He put out the plates and napkins and a canister of Pringles. When he opened his kitchen cupboard, I saw that it was stocked with canned stew.

You'd like to think that, as a man grows older, he outgrows the phase of his life where he sleeps on a box spring on the floor, decorates with unframed posters, and generally lives like an animal. But what if that's not how it works? What if you just press pause in your evolution when you pair off, offload your responsibilities onto another person—and then, suddenly, at 35 or 50 or 61, you have to pick up where you left off, in a space as void of human warmth as the edge of the solar system? What if you're adrift in an apartment whose emptiness is like a mirror to the sudden emptiness of your own life?


Young Boy and Adam Driver walking through office building Photo by Wilson Webb


In Marriage Story, Charlie rents an unfurnished place in Los Angeles, forgoing his and Nicole's airy apartment in New York and its accumulated clutter of artistic and family life. His bachelor pad, too, has beige walls and a carpet—the carpet is awful, thick, muffling, synthetic. There are dark cabinets and artificial light in the apartment's too-narrow kitchen, and the walls are naked. Charlie knows this, and makes an effort, which in his case means FaceTiming with his assistant back in New York—she advises him on where to hang things, which plants to put in which corners. This is less a case of the place "needing a woman's touch" than of dressing a set for a guy pretending to have a home.

There's a good Sad Dad Pad in Lucy in the Sky, too: In the film's funniest scene, earthbound astronaut John Hamm lounges on his couch, shirtless and wordless and silently, sloppily Scotch-drunk, watching a TV set that's the only thing on the shelves. (In Heat, Robert De Niro's consummate-pro thief lives by the credo "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat," and resides in an apartment whose cabinets are as empty as Hamm's. This is presumably because of his Zen-like devotion to his craft, but I wonder if he even knows how to boil ramen. Heat is the ultimate "baby, I gotta go rob that bank" movie, and at the end of it, De Niro dies, because he makes a sentimental play for probably the first time in his life.) Early in the fourth season of Mad Men, Dr. Faye Miller tells a newly divorced Don Draper (Hamm again!), "Don't worry. You'll be married again in a year," a prophecy which is fulfilled by the end of the season, when Don, who has been sleeping with Faye, proposes to his secretary after she does a good job watching his kids on vacation. She could have been anyone.

The other big showcase scene in Marriage Story occurs when a family-court evaluator shows up at Charlie's apartment to watch him and his son for an evening. Charlie wants custody, but cracks under the stress of having to be the permanently switched-on caregiver. Little by little, he second-guesses himself as he goes through the unnatural motions of meal prep and supervision, grows tense over the pressure of open-ended one-on-one bonding time, and becomes upset to discover all the little gaps in his understanding of his own child, what he's like and what he likes to do, what sort of toys and games and meals he enjoys—gaps Charlie's been filling with his own misrememberings and biases, presuming, like Daniels' character in The Squid and the Whale and Cliff in Ad Astra, that his son is essentially a miniature version of himself and his preferences. He thought he knew what he was doing, he thought he wanted this, but the scene fades out on an exhausted Charlie—following a stunning bit of slapstick acting from Driver which I shan't spoil—realizing that he's a drop-in parent, chastened by his own ineptitude. Maybe he'll do better next time. Maybe his son will.

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