Hollywood star on a Hollywood moon: director Damien Chazelle returns with a Neil Armstrong biopic.
First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle
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First Man, the Neil Armstrong biopic by La La Land director Damien Chazelle, follows the astronaut as he prepares for the 1969 spaceflight that landed him on the moon. Chazelle’s film has the feel of an official assignment and the look of a faded home movie. I saw it gigantic, in IMAX, a strange format for a film trying to imitate 8mm home movies of the 1960s. I had never seen an IMAX movie before. When the image expanded to a bigger size as the astronauts of Apollo 11 reached the moon, I was bowled over, but I was also bowled over the first time a Björk video took over the entire screen of my iPhone while I was listening to her latest album on Spotify.
Near the end of the film, as Armstrong hesitantly sets foot on the lunar surface and utters his famous line, Chazelle overwhelms the screen with the blackness of outer space, leaving the moon’s gray expanse of rocks and craters at the bottom of the frame so we know we are not just staring into the cosmic void. Armstrong’s gesture into this void is to toss a bracelet once belonging to his daughter, Karen—who had died seven years earlier, at age two—into a deep crater.
The letters of her name on the bracelet’s little white alphabet beads, swallowed into oblivion, signify the smallness and fragility of human civilization against the vast nothingness of space. The silence of the cosmos adds to the tenderness of this scene, because in space no one can hear the creak of heartstrings as they are pulled across a soundstage by a movie crew.
As Karen’s father, Ryan Gosling, who starred as the jazz purist in La La Land, plays Armstrong as a taciturn man dedicated to NASA and to the concept of space exploration. He has trouble communicating with his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and their two sons, but memories of his early years with his spouse, when they danced in their living room to ethereal-sounding midcentury music of the spheres, comforts Neil while he is away learning to resist g-force in mechanical gyroscopes that whip him around at high speeds and sicken him. Foy’s version of a plain Midwestern housewife includes an approach to domestic life and romance as tight-lipped and guarded as Neil’s, but more intense. While Gosling is shy and indirect, Foy’s killer stare could freeze the wings off a Lockheed NF-104A.
When she has to raise her voice to Neil the night before his mission, insisting that he tell their sons there’s a good chance he won’t survive it, Foy finally erupts in emotion. Gosling resists letting Neil do the same as he curtly informs his boys that flying to the moon comes with some risks. It is hard to tell if First Man is nostalgic for this kind of family life, criticizing it, or simply noting it. The film is severe and de-dramatized.
When quick-to-anger conservatives somehow got wind before seeing it that First Man does not make a big thing out of Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon, they didn’t know it but they had a point. Chazelle shows the flag as a small red, white, and blue square deep in the black frame, as if the film is asking, “What was this United States of America, that it somehow put a man on the moon?” A brief montage of homegrown resistance to NASA presents high-minded sci-fi novelist Kurt Vonnegut in an archival clip musing that perhaps space exploration is a waste of resources. Soul singer Leon Bridges shows up as Gil Scott-Heron at a rally delivering his proto-rap “Whitey on the Moon” to protestors a year before Scott-Heron actually recorded the piece: “I can’t pay no doctor bill / (but whitey’s on the moon).”
Whitey, it could be said, is the star of this movie. Bridges is one of maybe three black men I glimpsed in First Man. The distance between the astronauts and social reality comes briefly to the surface, but throughout the film its presence is felt, and not lightly. In Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983), about the first astronauts training to orbit the Earth in the 1958–63 Mercury program, however, the whiteness of the seven astronauts and their wives was more easily worn because they were all played by actual gung-ho Americans like Dennis Quaid and Fred Ward, who smiled, drank, and drove big cars to the crazy sound of Little Richard.
The remote, stern qualities present in Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeager and Barbara Hershey’s Glennis Yeager in The Right Stuff overwhelm Chazelle’s less romanticized lead characters in First Man. The Yeagers’ other larger-than-life qualities have been drained of romance by Gosling’s and Foy’s purposefully flattened performances, a strategy Chazelle’s film seems to attribute to the seriousness and danger of the Apollo mission. First Man, therefore, revises other films about the space program but without really criticizing them, just emptying them. The NASA movie it has the most in common with is Robert Altman’s Countdown (1967), his flatfooted pre-M*A*S*H film with James Caan and Robert Duvall that fictionalized the domestic lives of astronauts preparing for the first lunar landing. Altman considered stranding Caan’s character alone on the moon with no way to get home, but the studio (Warner Bros.) wouldn’t allow it.
While movies like Countdown and The Right Stuff had no problem finding a slew of American actors to play astronauts and their wives, First Man relies on a Canadian (Gosling), an Englishwoman (Foy), and an Australian (Jason Clarke as Ed White, who walked in space and died in a fire on the launchpad before the first Apollo mission got in the air). First Man’s grimness, I think, is the product of uncertainty about what America means today and who has a place in it. It switches out exuberance for glum dedication to the training and expertise required to get a hard job done, presenting a Neil Armstrong for today’s winner-take-all economy.
The America of the 1960s is here a shell today’s Hollywood can inhabit, then populate with international actors, twice-removed simulations of Americans in their glory days. These actors have an advantage. They come from countries where going to college to learn to act does not risk lifetime debt.
The space program was inherently dangerous. There are a lot of funerals in this film—life and death for fliers hasn’t changed much in the movies since Only Angels Have Wings (1939). I have a connection to astronauts in training. My mother’s first husband was an experimental jet pilot in the Air Force who died eleven months into their marriage when he crashed his plane into the Organ Mountains in New Mexico. Forty years later, she died calling his name. Neil lived and made it home, and the Armstrongs survived as a family until Janet divorced him in 1994. As in La La Land and Whiplash (2014), Chazelle’s theme remains: failure is just around the corner. There’s first, then there’s everybody else.
A. S. Hamrah is the film critic for n+1.