Donald Lynden-Bell, Roger Griffin, Neville Woolf and Wal Sargent are four British astronomers who have known each other since they all began working at the California Institute of Technology in 1960. The four are considered superstars of astronomy, with all of them being active during the most productive period of the field. On the 50th anniversary of their friendship, these astronomers get together for a nostalgic road trip through the southwestern United States.
Star Men is a film that reunites four men, who were once responsible for some of the greatest advances in the field of astronomy—such as Roger Griffin developing the photoelectric radial-velocity spectrometer in 1967, which would pave the way for the discovery of planets outside of the solar system. Now all in their late 70s, these former astronomy leaders have let the younger generation take over, leaving these men to contemplate their place in the universe.
It can be a bit hard to tell at times whether Star Men is a documentary about astronomy or whether it is one about astronomers. The latter is probably more likely, even though the film does give a crash course on the field of astronomy. As part of their 50th reunion road trip, the film’s subjects revisit some of the best telescopes in the United States, such as the Palomar Observatory and radio telescopes in New Mexico. It is noted in the film that many go into astronomy as a excuse to go up mountains, which is where many observatories are located.
Through her narration, it is obvious that director Alison Rose has a lifelong fascination with astronomy and considers these four men idols from her childhood. However, the average individual would likely have no real idea who these astronomers are, and the film only really scratches the surface of their careers. In fact, the film becomes much more about these men’s advancing ages and contemplation on their moralities. There comes a point in the film when it stops being about astronomy altogether and focuses on the men going on a hike towards the Rainbow Bridge monument in Utah—a repeat of a similar hike they made in their youth. Ultimately, Star Men is more a film about the men than the stars.