By Kelly MacConomy
There is something at once intimidating yet exhilarating when confronted by the indomitable spirit of those who reach beyond the precepts of human limitations. Cataclysmic events pervade the collective conscious of a culture. They transcend time. Evolving as an identity unto its own. As the famous quote by Neil Armstrong, the first man to put a foot on the moon July 30, 1969, goes: “One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.”
Armstrong, who died August 25, 2012 at the age of 82, upon landing back home qualified to reporters that his actual words were, “One small step for a man.” The “a” wasn’t picked up in the broadcast to Earth. It’s seemingly an insignificant semantic quibble but as the words had resonance the world over, the quote much like the moment in history rendered Neil Armstrong immortal.
It was an unheralded dawn in Yosemite on June 3, 2017 when veteran rock climber Alex Honnold, without great fanfare and in less than four hours, completed a free solo ascent of El Capitan. Back in the fifties this climb with ropes and gear took 47 days. He had neither. Fortunately, we have new movies about both these epic quests.
The magnificent monolith soaring 3,000 feet from the floor of Yosemite Valley has been an epic inspiration to artists, photographers, and filmmakers as well as climbers for three centuries. From Albert Bierstadt’s en plain air homages upon wall-sized, ginormous canvas, to Ansel Adams’ majestic black and white iconic photographic imagery, to the rock wall making cameos in Lucy and Desi films, Star Trek both generations, Maverick, and Robert Redford’s Yosemite: The Fate of Heaven, the Park has beckoned like a siren to the lustful heart and soul of the outlying adventurer.
Alex Honnold’s free solo of El Cap was heralded by The New York Times as, “one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever.” Just a few weeks ago Honnold woke up in the Candlewood Suites in Jersey City, New Jersey, and proceeded to free solo a nearby sixty-nine story apartment high rise. Whatever for? To quote George Mallory, the first man to ascend Mount Everest, “Because it was there!” Naturally.
Man’s quest, not so much for glory but compelled by personal existential examination, is the core of the American spirit. Consider Lewis and Clark. Think about Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. Boldly going where no man or woman has gone before to that undiscovered country, be it up in the air, braving oceans of time, or commanding whitewater rapids – even superhuman scaling of sheer vertical granite walls.
The space race in the Sixties personified the zeitgeist of the times. Anyone over the age of 55 will vividly recall the anticipation of the July 16, 1968 launch of the Apollo 11 rocket. That momentous event had the planet glued to televisions and radios for five days, planetary witnesses ultimately to man’s landing on the moon.
By the late Sixties people had become wholeheartedly invested in the riveting drama and instantaneous celebrity of the handsome, all-American, clean-cut astronauts of the Gemini and Apollo missions. The country had been divided by an unpopular war, upending protests and a cultural revolution that eschewed establishment values and “square” social mores. Apollo 11 to the Moon unified the counterculture with the anti-disestablishment backlash of mainstream USA.
Why choose to go to the Moon? To climb 3,000 feet of rock straight up without rope? President John F. Kennedy in his speech defending the astronomically expensive pursuits of NASA’s unrelenting space ambitions, extolling the merits of lunar-and-beyond space exploration, explained:
“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why 35 years ago fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the Moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Undaunted exploration was and is the new frontier, be it to unknown worlds in a galaxy far, far away or holding fast to the seemingly impossible, nobly advancing the technological and metaphysical.
First Man and Free Solo revisit the starting points on the ultimate ride of two lifetimes. Ryan Gosling’s soulful, macroscopic performance as an unemotive, anguished Armstrong under the direction of Damien Chazelle in First Man, as well as Alex Honnold’s compelling sang-froid fearlessness with Free Solo, directed by Jimmy Chin, take you virtually to places no film has gone before. For the armchair astronaut and vicarious rock climber these films fly you to the moon and take you to the limits. One more time.
First Man, rated PG-13 for intense suspense is screening in IMAX and regular format at AMC Hoffman in Alexandria and theaters around the DMV. Free Solo rated PG-13 for language and coronary potential is exclusively being shown at AMC Hoffman Center 22 and the Anjelica Film Center theaters in Virginia.