Ten years ago, I was sent on a management training course. It ended with the facilitator gathering the group together to share one final piece of advice. “You’ve always got to ask yourself,” she said, leaning in, as our pens hovered expectantly, “is it worth your puff?”
At the time, this felt a little disappointing. The course was three days long. Presumably it was quite expensive. But in fact, it’s turned out to be a pretty invaluable mantra. Barely a morning passes without puff stockpiles getting assessed.
It’s also, happily, the big question posed by First Man, the Neil Armstrong biopic starring Ryan Gosling, which is out this week. Was the Apollo programme worth it? Both financially (about $150bn in today’s change), and because so many people perished in the process. Not to mention all those bitten nails back home, nor all the stricken monkeys.
For a film based on an authorised hagiography and made in close collaboration with its subject’s family, First Man winds up being surprisingly sceptical. Armstrong – spoiler alert – makes it to the moon. The film then ends. The expectation is that the success of his trip has a) socked it to the Soviets in the space race, b) inspired millions of children for all eternity and c) afforded us fresh perspective on our globe’s vulnerability. But those iconic shots of Earth were taken from inner space, not from the Sea of Tranquillity. And we’ve trashed the planet anyway.
The problem for First Man is that it does require a quantifiable achievement for its big emotional pitch to work. Like so many Oscar-botherers, it’s basically a Bible retread. One lad risks everything for the sake of – in this case – a giant leap for mankind.
The selling point is that we get to soak up our hero’s sweat as he does so. Damien Chazelle’s film – with its fabulous visuals and lots of clanking – acts as a sort of simulator for all those who have, at some point, wondered how scary it might be to get strapped into a tin coffin and blasted out of the stratosphere (another spoiler alert: quite scary). Once Armstrong is up there, it offers the audience the chance to look back upon us mere mortals, from behind the visor, among the stars.
First Man’s chief rival for awards this season does exactly the same thing. Bradley Cooper’s aim in making A Star is Born was, he has said, to afford audiences that rarefied viewpoint usually granted only to the extremely famous: from the stage at a stadium concert, on to the crowd below.
His film also immerses us in the scary claustrophobia – and the occasional small pleasures – of being a very important person. The life of a rock god, it seems, isn’t so far removed from that of a top-drawer astronaut: enforced isolation, flashing bulbs, a hell of a racket.
And Cooper’s movie, too – and I’m afraid this really is a bit of a spoiler – is a story of self-sacrifice. For one star to be born, the logic runs that another must sputter. Lady Gaga’s ascension to the Grammys comes at considerable cost to her immensely benevolent mentor. Luckily, Cooper’s bearded, cross-to-bear saint is fine with that.
Yet when the credits rolled at the Wood Green Cineworld in north London on Wednesday night, you’d struggle to say the audience agreed. Sure, we got to see Gaga do lovely thrusting on Saturday Night Live. But was that worth laying down a life for?
Hollywood operates on the assumption that it always is worth laying down a life for – that there is nothing more treasurable than talent – or, perhaps, than fame. Such was the message of La La Land, Chazelle and Gosling’s previous project; it’s certainly the only logical conclusion of A Star is Born. Film fetishises martyrdom, whatever the price and however flimsy the prize may be. Not just because this raises the narrative stakes, but because it elevates the importance of cinema itself.
Cinema has always sought to reassure audiences that being very famous is fraught with bother, that you should be thankful that you’re still one of the little people. But it simultaneously encourages us to idolise its leading lights and fantasise that we too might one day join them – with sufficient luck, balls and vision.
The hopes of the Apollo astronauts were bigger than those of showbiz hopefuls. But at a time when wars rage, politics wobbles and the Earth that Armstrong so soulfully regarded begins to burn, deifying someone for sweating it in the service of a disposable goal feels perverse. Puff is needed to actually change the world. Otherwise it’s just hot air.
• Catherine Shoard is film editor at the Guardian