One wishes politics on Earth were more like that on the red planet.
The movie “The Martian” lacks the intense, profane and arresting opening lines of the book: “I’m pretty much f**ked.” Thus author Andy Weir introduces us to Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded on the planet Mars. He doesn’t have enough water, he doesn’t have enough food, and, for that matter, since no one knows he’s alive and all of his communication systems are broken, none of those really matter anyway.
But the brilliance of the book — and the movie too, which despite its bowdlerization, keeps faith with its source material — is that Watney persists. And he does so by doing something that seems a rarity these days: He solves problems. He doesn’t point fingers or cast blame. He doesn’t wallow in misery or succumb to despair. He doesn’t rail against imagined enemies.
He just solves problems.
It’s a lesson for our personal lives but also for the political as well. For despite its seeming theme of one lone man against impossible odds, Watney’s ultimate survival depends upon the efforts of many — thousands, really. The message of the book and film: It takes a village, or even the entire world, to save the life of one man.
What a left-wing kind of idea.
My first impression after reading the book had been that (despite the 57 times the f-bomb makes an appearance) we should make it required reading for high schoolers. If so, one might speculate, the number of kids interested in science, technology and math could double or triple. The reason is that Watney is such an appealing character — witty and self-deprecating but also hardworking, ingenious and brave. His MacGyver-like creativity makes being a geek seem almost sexy.
But there’s much more than that at play in the story (spoiler alert ahead): When NASA finally learns that he is alive, Watney’s survival becomes the preoccupation of the agency and eventually the entire planet. And we see in scene after scene how it is not only Watney’s undisputed cleverness that keeps him alive, but also the cleverness of a host of others — some higher-ups, some low on the organizational totem pole. Thus, it is a junior satellite planner looking at grainy photos who first figures out that Watney might be alive. Later, it is an over-caffeinated mathematician who figures how he might be saved.
Domestic and even international politics enter as well. Actor Jeff Daniels plays Teddy Sanders, the fleshy-faced NASA administrator who, if there’s to be a villain, would seem to qualify: He’s the one who worries about politics and public relations and fears to “take risks to save lives.” Yet when the timing of a possible re-supply mission proves a problem, it’s Sanders who makes the decision to scrap the normal testing protocol, saving precious days. It’s the right decision, but also one that bites him: The re-supply rocket blows up in mid-flight, and one can imagine a Benghazi-like series of Congressional inquiries in his future. And internationally, it is Chinese scientists who reach out to NASA — “space agency to space agency.” thus avoiding the politicians of their own government — to provide a needed assist when things really do look lost.
Sometimes “The Martian” feels like an idealization, aspiration for what the world should be rather than a description of what it is. Indeed, it makes for a sharp contrast with the dysfunction that seems to pervade Washington — a dysfunction rooted in core beliefs of rampant individualism that think small government is better than big and no government is better than small.
Yet the agency at the center of the action — NASA — is big government and it really does exist and despite politics and despite fumbling bureaucratic nonsense, it really does succeed, sometimes marvelously so. It’s hard to imagine that any private entity could muster the intellectual resources and billions of dollars involved to save the life of just one man. Yet that’s the seemingly impossible mission that NASA takes upon itself. And if we can possibly succeed in such a mission, one imagines, so too, if we just put our minds to it, can we succeed in others, from global climate change to gun violence. “Work the problem,” admonishes one character in the book. It’s an admonishment the Nation’s Capital needs to take to heart.
This column was first published in Cognoscenti on October 8, 2015.