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Film Review: First Man

First Man (2018; Directed by Damien Chazelle)

First Man is a space exploration movie that is sturdily, even stubbornly earthbound. Like the version of its focal character played by Ryan Gosling, Damien Chazelle’s biographical drama about NASA engineer and astronaut, American icon, and first human being to step onto the moon Neil Armstrong is determined, practical, and emotionally reticent, expending maximum effort on technical accuracy and experiential fidelity and allotting naught but a bare sliver of space to wonder and transcendence. As with many recent Hollywood films of note, First Man was burdened (and, perhaps, its box office and awards prospects weakened) by a boundingly moronic bad faith controversy (“con-troversy”, I call them, emphasis very much on the “con”) driven by jingoistic online-right reactionaries disappointed that Chazelle did not show Armstrong plant the American flag on the moon’s surface like a boastful interplanetary conquistador. Even the Con-in-Chief, U.S. President Donald Trump, weighed in stupidly on First Man‘s mortal representational sin.

Even if the Right’s self-serving whipped-up outrage over the missing flag-planting hadn’t blocked First Man from their sight like an artificial eclipse, it’s doubtful that these arrogant, magical-thinking nationalists would have found much to like in the film anyway. Chazelle, directing a screenplay by Josh Singer based on James R. Hansen’s book, gives us a profile of Neil Armstrong that is doggedly unromanticized, emphasizing his stoic work ethic, his ever-increasing matter-of-fact nature, and stone-faced emotional bottling in the face of recurring, agonizing tragedies. Gosling plays Armstrong as a man who puts his head down and presses on through pain and danger that consumes men around him, and wins enough saving throws to get through NASA’s sometimes lethally audacious Gemini and Apollo programs with his skin intact and, almost incidentally, with his name etched in the annals of human history.

But Gosling’s internally-contained performance also clearly registers how Armstrong’s professionally-focused march to immortality comes at the cost of his family and personal relationships. The early part of First Man details the devastating loss of Armstrong’s daughter Karen to a brain tumour. Armstrong tracks her symptoms and treatment options in a notebook, displaying a methodical approach that serves him well with NASA but makes her death no less inevitably or agonizing. The tears he sheds for her are last that we see stain his cheeks, and he buries almost any hint of open emotional communication with her. This walling off of Neil Armstrong from the world increasingly strains his relationship to his wife Janet (Claire Foy, doing remarkable things with the usually thankless wife role), who he eventually separated from and then divorced in the 1990s, and to his two sons (Gavin Warren and Connor Colton Blodgett), who he can barely bring himself to say goodbye to before his fateful (and very possibly deadly) trip to the moon on Apollo 11. Armstrong retreats ever further into himself and into his work, even as that work claims the lives of colleagues close to him like Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) and Ed White (Jason Clarke), the latter one of three astronauts to perish in the Apollo 1 fire.

First Man contrasts the earthbound scenes of Armstrong building up his personal walls with white-knuckle sequences of Armstrong tensely striving against the gargantuan forces of spatial physics. More so, perhaps it actually likens the scenarios that face him on earth and in space: Armstrong strains to survive against forces that would crush him pitilessly, protected only by the shuddering but stalwart metal armour of the space capsules. The space flight scenes operate as embodied metaphors for his personal life. What does Neil Armstrong do on earth but rely on similar armour to protect him from being crushed by forces of feeling that are all the more terrible to him for being unquantifiable and unmeasurable, unlike the realm of math and physics of rocket science? There’s a breaking-point tension to these scenes: his opening atmospheric test flight, his Gemini 8 orbital flight with David Scott (Christopher Abbott) that sees Armstrong narrowly avert disaster with timely ingenuity, and finally the nail-biting climactic lunar landing alongside Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), with the red digital fuel indicator counting down ominously and Justin Hurwitz’s score pulsing with mortal urgency. But for Gosling’s Armstrong, none are as tense and terrifying as looking his sons in the eye and willing himself to tell them that they may never see him again.

First Man functions as a demystifying artistic document as regards the mythical Neil Armstrong, who, at least in Gosling’s no-nonsense incarnation, would not have long suffered the grasping, grubby fools who sought to use him to represent the dubiously-conceived positions of their cause in the 21st-century American culture wars. But it also demystifies the inner workings of 1960s NASA: it’s a workplace, albeit a high-stakes and highly specialized one, with its rivalries and alliances, where the personnel decisions behind history-making missions are mostly about whose turn it is. And it leaves time, in a tonally incongruous but undeniably interesting montage aside, to demonstrate the contemporary disagreement about and criticism of the American space program. Although now beknighted and glorified by the boomer-centric epistemological elite for its leaping aspirational achievements, the U.S. space program’s literally astronomical costs and risks were controversial across the political spectrum in the 1960s, and Chazelle cheekily scores a compilation of these protests with a re-creation of jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” performed by Leon Bridges.

This sort of demystification is particularly abhored by the breed of power-worshipping authoritarian nationalists who criticized First Man sight unseen, like Trump and Republican Senator Marco Rubio (who called the choice not to show the lunar flag-planting in the film “total lunacy”, which makes one wonder how he would characterize his party’s legislative agenda). The complications of history and human psychology, the limitations and minutiae of science and engineering, and the realities of messy political and social non-consensus give the lie to their propagandistic fantasies of manifest destiny reaching into the cold, dark immensity of space. First Man very skillyfully and compellingly turns Neil Armstrong from an icon into a man, and transforms his historic steps on the moon from an act of immortality into the laboured achievement of a mortal, of many mortals. It brings this astronaut down to earth, and in the process tells us more about him than any number of jingoistic skyhopping hagiographies ever could.

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Categories: Film, History, Reviews
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