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Non-Review Review: First Man

First Man offers a novel take on a familiar story.

The moon landing is one of the most important moments of twentieth century history, a defining for both America and the larger world. In fact, it remains emblematic of the furthest soil to which  man has ventured to this point. Our species had crossed the threshold of the upper atmosphere before and has done so since. In fact, mankind has even gone back to the moon, although those trips are fading from living memory. The moon landing remains a cultural and historical touchstone, and has been explored from countless perspectives.

Take your protein pill and put your helmet on.

It takes a lot to find a fresh pair of eyes on this journey, but Damien Chazelle does exactly that. The director makes this clear as early as the opening scene. The first time that the audience sees the Earth as a planet, it is not through an establishing shot or the windows of the makeshift space craft. It is reflected in the visor of Niel Armstrong, the warm blue horizon cutting across his visor just below his striking and piercing eyes. Ryan Gosling has always been an actor capable of communicating much through his eyes, and First Man asks us to appreciate space reflected back from them.

So much of First Man is told either focused on or looking through the eyes of Neil Armstrong; the majesty of space and lunar surfaces reflected in the visor of his helmet, or various first-person shot from inside elevators or falling swiftly to Earth. The audience is placed very much in Armstrong’s shoes. Even when Chazelle isn’t literally shooting the film from Armstrong’s perspective, he favours tight close-ups and handheld camera work in confined spaces to suggest that the audience is literally trapped within that space with Armstrong.

Rocket man.

There is no small irony in this, and Chazelle knows it. It seems strange that freshest pair of eyes on the lunar mission should be those of the first man to set foot on the moon. One might have expected the mythology to start there, but instead Armstrong has long remained a figure of mystery. Tacit and introverted, Armstrong has always seemed more like a legend than a human being. The novelty and the power of First Man comes from studying the man who made both that small step and that giant leap.

In doing so, First Man offers a powerful and intimate exploration of a very personal story that just happens to be told on the broadest canvas imaginable.

All fired up.

Much attention has been devoted to the controversy generated by First Man following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. In a press conference, a journalist asked Gosling and Chazelle why they opted not to show the planting of the American flag on the moon. A reasonable answer was given, but Marco Rubio caught wind of the question and turned it into another front in the American culture wars. As it stands, extreme right-wing elements in the United States have launched a smear campaign against the film similar to the ones against Black Panther or The Last Jedi.

The interesting thing about this outrage is that it ironically provides a prism through which the film might be considered. It is absolute nonsense to argue that First Man is anti-American in any meaningful sense. The film is saturated in reds, whites and blues. The flag is featured in several sequences, both on the moon and closer to home. More to the point, there is an extended sequence at the end of the film where the moon landing is cited as an example of American leadership in the world, bringing mankind together through innovation and hard work.

Putting his foot down.

Indeed, First Man celebrates an idealised form of American identity, the side of the country that is ambitious and resourceful, capable of accomplishing impossible acts of wonder beyond the wildest imaginings of the rest of the world. As Deke Slayton outlines early in the film, and as archive footage of President John F. Kennedy reinforces later in the narrative, the journey to the moon is such a seemingly impossible endeavour that to accomplish it they must “start from scratch.” The film goes into considerable detail about the work, the risks and the losses involved.

First Man never ignores or downplays the role that the government played in planning the mission, nor the distinctly American roots of this journey. Even when the flag is off-screen, it lingers in the background. Chazelle offers up a number of striking compositions that offer combinations and permutations of the stars and stripes: red flames flickering against a blue sky, with an astronaut foregrounded in his white space suit; Armstrong wearing his bright red baseball cap and his blue checkered shirt. The flag is everywhere in First Man.

It turns out it is rocket science.

To be fair, First Man is perhaps a little more candid about the complicated politics of the space race than earlier unambiguously celebratory iterations of the myth. It is made very clearly early on the that government’s desire to reach the moon is driven as much by Cold War anxieties as a deeper altruism. Similarly, the politicians within the film repeatedly waver on the political cost of these missions, endangering the life of the astronauts.

More than that, there is some minor lip service paid to the question of who exactly benefits from the mission to the moon. At a press conference, Armstrong is very bluntly asked, “Do you think this mission is worth the cost, in money and in lives?” Another short sequence captures the understandable counter-cultural anxieties about the funding and politicisation of the space race. The film features a complete rendition of the beat poem “whitey’s on the moon.”

However, these are never presented as criticisms of the journey to the moon in the first place. Instead, they reflect skepticism around the idea of that journey as a political myth cultivated in favour of national self-image. This is a good choice for a number of reasons. As the absurd outrage over the perceived national slight demonstrates, this might not be the right moment to play up the nationalist sentiments of the story. After all, heightened ethno-nationalism is a toxic force within contemporary American politics, and it makes sense to avoid that particular minefield.

On a less overtly political and more pragmatic note, it also allows Chazelle to tell a version of the story that has never been told before. There have been countless films about the space race, and the most obvious point of comparison for First Man will always be The Right Stuff. By shifting its emphasis to Armstrong, First Man manages to tell a much more personal story that is also more poetic in nature.

Armstrong is over the moon.

First Man arguably owes as much to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar as it does to The Right Stuff, even just in terms of how Chazelle shoots his space sequences. There is a surprisingly intimate and visceral quality to the big space beats within First Man, the camera often focused tightly on the faces of the characters, shaking wildly with turbulence, and whirling freely around the zero-gravity environment. Even for external shots, Chazelle fixes the camera to the hull of the craft, in order to provide a much more subjective and disorienting experience.

Particular credit is due to cinematographer Linus Sandgren and sound designer Ai-Ling Lee for their work during these really tense action beats. Given that First Man is based on one of the best-known stories of the twentieth-century, it is theoretically hard to wring tension from many of the launch sequences. However, the launch and landing sequences in First Man are a visceral and effective experience. The audience is almost rocking in their chairs.

Neil by mouth.

Chazelle emphasises the vulnerability of these characters by emphasising the fallibility of their equipment. Repeatedly in First Man, windows fog up and panels inside the ship glow red with heat on reentry. Equipment is consistent only in its unreliability, with the characters often resorting to the familiar trick of turning something off and turning it back on again. The film skilfully reinforces the idea that these characters are doing something for which no framework or rulebook exists.

First Man repeatedly plays down its more epic beats. Big scenes that would receive fanfare in a more conventional telling are played off almost as an afterthought. Following one disastrous misfire, Armstrong is summoned to a meeting with top brass. He is shivering with anticipation. However, the meeting is over before it begins. “Don’t bother sitting down,” Robert Gilruth instructs him. “This will be quick.” It is quick, and it is positive. Similarly, Armstrong doesn’t find out that he has won the “lunar lottery” in a big meeting or conference, but quietly in the men’s room.

Perfectly suited to the task.

All of this allows for a tighter focus on Armstrong himself. This is perhaps the strongest thematic connection with films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar over more traditional historical space race narratives like The Right Stuff. There is a strong existential throughline in First Man, with the film repeatedly asking both its characters and its audience: what kind of a man would subject himself to something as dangerous and absurd as strapping himself atop a giant missile and flinging himself into space?

Shifting its focus away from familiar and cynical nationalist politics, First Man offers a more contemplative answer to these sorts of questions. When Armstrong is asked why he wants to go into space, he offers an answer that seems like it might have been lifted from a self-help book, suggesting that space allows individuals to “see more clearly things that they probably should have seen before.” Space is about getting space; not as an extension of the political doctrine of manifest destiny, but in a more personal desire to have some room to one’s self.

Sticking the landing.

First Man returns time and again to the image of an object floating in zero gravity. It is a familiar space movie trope, but one that never gets old. It is perfect cinematic shorthand for the weirdness of space travel, for how far it exists outside the audience’s frame of reference. Repeatedly in First Man, characters contemplate objects that are floating without any external forces acting upon them; in the opening scene it’s a pen, later it’s a cassette recording. However, First Man suggests that Armstrong is more than curious about that sense of existing weightless. He is drawn to it.

It is tempting to look at First Man in terms of Chazelle’s previous two films, Whiplash and La La Land. Both are stories about men who are drawn to some grander purpose that forces them to sacrifice happiness and human connection. They are archetypal “great men” stories, driven by an ambivalence about the kinds of people who pursue “greatness” at the price of “goodness.” A cynical audience member might see First Man as something similar, a literalisation of Elton John’s Rocket Man about a space trucker whose calling takes him further from home than anybody else.

They had a really great scientific (ad)visor.

There are a few beats in First Man that reinforce this superficial reading. Armstrong argues with his wife, Janet, while packing for his big trip. “I have to go to work,” he tells her, a line that could easily have been lifted from a much more mundane career drama. The film constantly juxtaposes Armstrong’s commitment to the mission against the home life from which he is absent, setting up the familiar dynamic of a man who abandons the mundane to accomplish something transcendent.

However, this not quite what is happening within First Man. Most notably, the film avoids a lot of the focus on how momentous or demanding the work is that marks other movies about the space race like Hidden Figures. There’s no important talk about how holidays are cancelled or about how everyone works weekends. There is a short conversation between Janet and another wife about how they rarely see their husbands, but there’s never any suggestion that the space between Janet and Neil Armstrong is just part of the job or a consequence of his greater obligations.

Instead, First Man repeatedly suggests that Armstrong does not so much want to visit another world as he yearns to leave this one. After all, the moon is just a lifeless rock. It is a gigantic desert decorated with “boulders the size of cars.” It holds little of any real interest or value, which in part explains why mankind has returned to it so infrequently. First Man repeatedly suggests that Armstrong doesn’t want to go to the moon specifically, he just wants to leave Earth behind.

The film repeatedly likens the trip to going outside, leaving the home. After one emotive moment, Ed White finds Armstrong standing in the backyard staring at the moon. Ed tries to start a conversation. “Do you think I went outside because I want to talk?” Armstrong curtly responds, and Ed leaves his colleague. Later on, one of the Armstrong children finds his mother crying. “Daddy’s going to the moon,” she explains. Without missing a beat, the child responds, “Can I go outside?”

His parenting skills are out of this world.

There is an implication that this is effectively a trip to the store for Armstrong, an excuse to get outside of his own head. At a press conference, even standoff-ish Buzz Aldren charms the press with a story about how he plans to bring his wife’s jewellery to the moon. “Will you be bringing anything with you?” journalists ask Armstrong. The astronaut deadpans, “If I could, I’d bring more fuel.” The whole point of this trip for Armstrong is to leave it all behind, to leave the forces that are acting upon him like gravity.

Early on, the film explores a formative trauma that hangs over the Armstrong family. Having to get a car ride home with Ed and Pat White, Janet works up the courage to ask Ed, “Does Neil ever talk to you about Karen?” Ed hesitates. Not really, he responds. Not meaningfully. Pat turns the question back on Janet, “Does he talk to you about her?” There is a beat. “No,” Janet responds, looking out the window. Then silence.

First Man repeatedly frames Armstrong as a stoic and taciturn man, an interpretation that plays very much to Gosling’s strengths as a dramatic actor. Gosling is able to communicate an incredible range of emotion through his eyes, and to suggest a reservoir of even more behind a few clipped words. Asked by the press what it felt like to be given the opportunity to lead the lunar mission, the most effusive confession that Armstrong can manage is, “I was pleased.” The press asks how it compares to winning a new car. Armstrong leans into the microphone, “I was pleased.”

Chazelle repeatedly returns to the idea of projection and performance within First Man, of the image that is cultivated and the reality that simmers underneath. There is a recurring sense that the entire project has been sanitised, that it exists entirely to project an image that is illusory and fantastical. Public statements to the press are ironically juxtaposed with private internal tribunals. The live feed of communication between the astronauts and Earth is cut once it appears that something unflattering might play out.

From astronaut to sixty in thirty seconds flat.

First Man includes a host of familiar shots and sequences. If they are not lifted directly from footage of the launch and the landing, they are perfect recreations of iconic space race moments. The audience is constantly reminded that these events are being carefully stage-managed. A lot of attention is paid to the cameras positioned on the outside of the craft in order to capture the best images of the events unfolding so that they might be prepared for public consumption, including recycling them for this film.

Similarly, the film is not afraid of darkness and blackness. Many depictions of space lean on the idea of sunlight and starlight, portraying the cosmos as a dark sheet with several holes in it hanging in front of a very bright light. First Man is notable for capturing the blackness of space. This obviously reflects the bleak and barren surface of the moon, emphasising the inhospitable nature of the environment. However, the space sequences also capture that sheer emptiness of the void, and the difficulty in finding anything up there.

A time for reflection.

There are points in First Man where the screen goes black; occasionally for several seconds at a time. These sequences often occur when a craft is rotating, even in orbit of Earth. Space is so large and so empty and so cold that it is possible to miss the gigantic blue marble right outside the window. At other points, the screen cuts out for a few frames, creating a compelling effect in the middle of an action sequence that recalls the act of blinking. For all that the mission is carefully stage-managed, it is presented as pure chaos.

This is reflected in Armstrong himself. The character spends a lot of time hiding behind a visor. It serves an obvious literal purpose for an astronaut, but it also reflects his psychology. Armstrong is a man who has constructed a shield to insulate himself from the world. The film repeatedly emphasises this in its framing and composition; many of the more intimate shots include lens flares and reflections, suggesting that the camera itself is shooting these scenes from behind the visor.

A familiar dance.

This is perhaps most obvious during the movie’s inevitable moon landing sequence, where Armstrong spends most of the sequence wearing a reflective visor designed to protect his eyes. This visor is down on most of the real-life footage of the landing, and many explain why Armstrong himself has been such a nebulous figure in early retellings of this myth. With that reflective visor down, Armstrong is hidden and concealed. He is wearing a perfect poker face. The helmet becomes a blank space on to which anything can be projected.

The beauty of First Man is the way in which it suggests that this is something that Armstrong wants, that the character is most comfortable when he is oblique to the people around him. Some of the film’s most surprisingly affecting moments find Armstrong raising his metaphorical visor for a fleeting second, only to close it again almost before anybody has realised what has happened. There’s an incredible power in this.

First Man is a striking and beautiful film, a story about how sometimes a small step and giant leap can be the same thing.

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2 Responses

  1. So it’s 3 for 3 for Damian Chazelle then?

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