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Not the Alt-Right Stuff: “First Man” and the Postnationalist Depoliticised Space Myth…

There is something uniquely American about the space programme.

Of course, America is not the only country that went into space. China has successfully launched a man into space, and India is planning to launch another person within a few years. America was not even the first country to launch a man into space. Many of the important “firsts” in space travel were claimed by the Soviet Union; the first dog launched into space, the first man launched into space, the first orbit of the planet, the first space-walk. In hindsight, America’s claim to winning the space race might not be that they went first, but that they went furthest.

Nevertheless, the space race is an important and defining part of American identity. It might be because the United States won the Cold War, and this sort of journey is perfectly representative of a symbolic victory in an ideological war. It might be because the space race sits so perfectly within the American self-image, the logical extension of distinctly American concepts like the limitless (whether “new” or “final”) frontier or “manifest destiny.” It may simply be that the United States is a country very keenly focused on its future, and that reach towards the sky is the ultimate push towards the future.

It is almost impossible to separate the space race, at least historically, from American identity. Even the utopian postnational future of the Star Trek franchise is very consciously filtered through an American lens. (Jean-Luc Picard, the franchise’s only non-American lead, is a delightfully hazy mix of vague European clichés including a taste for tea and British accent, against a French name and ownership of a vineyard.) To be fair, modern space-set stories like The Europa Report or Doctor Who or Sunshine tend to place a greater emphasis on international cooperation, but space is till seen as a primarily American concern.

When British-American director Christopher Nolan decided to make a movie about the space race in Interstellar, he steeped it in Americana. The film was not only about a mission organised by NASA, but the entire film was steeped in Americana that suggested the whole enterprise was inseparable from American identity; baseball games, tales of the Great Depression, the corn fields of rural America, even the soothing Texas accent of Matthew McConaughey. A charming piece of retrofuturism, of nostalgia for how we used to look at the future, Interstellar was an ode to the space race as a defining part of American identity.

This makes sense. Many of the images and signifiers of space are still tied specifically to the United States. After all, it is estimated that almost fifteen percent of the world’s population watched the moon landing, a defining moment of American triumph. The image of the American flag planted on the lunar surface is one of the most iconic images of the twentieth century, inexorably tying the moon mission to ideas of nationalist endeavour and triumph. Like Antarctica, the moon might theoretically exist beyond the claims of any one government, but it’s also impossible to separate it from that image of the flag.

This perhaps explains why the decision not to show the planting of that flag in First Man has been so controversial, quite aside from the general (and exhausting) trend towards politicisation of everything. The moon landing is so casually and so straightforwardly accepted as a triumph of American nationalism that even eluding a part of the story that everybody knows anyway is treated as an affront. The response to this artistic decision treats it as a betrayal to American identity and an attempted erasure of what is a fundamental part of this story.

However, there is something very interesting in the way that First Man approaches the nationalism inherent in the space race, and the movie’s decision to place its emphasis elsewhere feels like a very pointed (and very timely) shift of focus on one of the defining narratives of the American century.

It started innocently enough. As with a lot of presumptive Oscar nominees, First Man launched its awards season release cycle on the festival circuit. It opened the seventy-fifth Venice Film Festival, increasingly a launching pad for movies that are not necessarily ready to play their hand at Cannes earlier in the year. The film was well-reviewed, earning a three-minute standing ovation. During the press conference, the cast and crew were asked a seemingly straightforward question about an artistic choice made in the final cut of the film. Given the planting of the American flag on the moon is an iconic moment, why not show it?

However, the American political right took note of the question and the implication. Almost immediately, they took to social media in order to lambaste the film. This was, of course, before anybody actually had a chance to see it. These angry online commenters were stirring controversy based on nothing more than hearsay and speculation. Then again, this is what modern political discourse has become, and it is no surprise that it has spilled over into cultural discourse as well. Internet cultural discourse has always been tempramental and highly charged, but the spillover from internet political discourse has not helped matters.

Certain segments of internet subculture are eager to voice their frustration at films like Wonder Woman, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi and Black Panther. Indeed, there is some suggestion that foreign actors might even be stirring civil strife in America by provoking and inciting campaigns against movies like The Last Jedi, turning criticism of artistic choices within those movies into a sort of heightened political protest. It isn’t enough for Black Panther to be a movie; to certain sections of the internet, its mere existence is an existential threat.

The political backlash to First Man was incredibly strong, even months before the film would be released to the public. Marco Rubio laid into the film based on this ideal observation; his contribution rendered somewhat ironic by an earlier plea to avoid the hyper-politicisation of art. Buzz Aldrin weighed in on the fray, stirring the pot even further. Enraged trolls rushed online to flood the film’s ratings on various open-access websites. The Internet Movie Database had to (very poorly) hide the movie’s rating in order to down play the fact that these politically-motivated voters were spamming the film with low votes.

This is, of course, a reflection on the fact that everything has become politicised, to the point that even depoliticising something is seen as a radical and controversial act of itself. More than that, it is a reminder that the American political right is just as invested in “identity politics” as their political opponents, just as liable to be “triggered” and just as demanding of their “safe spaces.” The right-wing outrage over the decision to downplay the planting of the American flag is exactly the sort of hyper-sensitive nonsense that the right-wing typically decries of millennial “snowflakes” or other broad stereotypes.

However, ignoring these aspects of the culture war, there is something interesting in how First Man approaches the idea of the space race as a nationalist myth. The film certainly never ignores or overlooks the importance of the space race as an endeavour by the American government. Armstrong visits the White House at one point, while the climax of the film replays archive footage of John F. Kennedy. The Space race is repeatedly contextualised in terms of the Cold War, the team operating in the shadow of Soviet accomplishments. It is made very clear that the spending is driven by a patriotic desire to beat the Russians.

The flag appears repeatedly in First Man, both literally and figuratively. The flag is shown both on the moon and flying outside of the homes of astronauts. Even when the flag is not on screen, the film is saturated with reds, whites and blues. Chazelle has a wonderful eye for composition, and frequently includes shots of Armstrong in a blue checkered shirt and a red baseball cap. One particular evocative image features Armstrong wearing a space suit stranded in a field of wheat, a shot bursting with Americana. The sky is bright blue, the flames from the crashed craft are deep red, Armstrong’s suit is still white.

Similarly, there is nothing within the film that could be described as anti-American. In fact, the climax of the film features an extended sequence exploring the world’s reaction to the moon landing, audiences from around the globe watching the moon landing and talking about what it means to them. There is newsreel footage from places like London and Venezuala, all of which acknowledging and celebrating the moon landing as a uniquely American accomplishment.

Indeed, First Man makes a point to emphasise this benevolent strain of American exceptionalism, the kind of ambition and open-sky thinking that made the United States such a respected world leader. Contrary to current right-wing talking points, the rest of the world has typically thought very highly of America. This is in part because of America’s understanding of the obligations of being a world leader; its duty to spread liberal democracy, its assistance in rebuilding post-War Europe, its influence as a stabilising force in international relations.

This is an idealistic vision of America, and is not to diminish its missteps and miscalculations, nor to overlook its failings and its errors in judgment. However, First Man suggests that there is a beauty in America’s capacity – whether literally or figuratively – to unite people and to lead the rest of the world through example. It is an idylised depiction of the United States, and there is nothing wrong with that. The moon landing is one of the greatest triumphs of the twentieth century because it is not defined by death and destruction, but by hope and ambition. (Ignoring, for a moment, its origins.)

At the same time, accepting that First Man is not anti-American in any meaningful sense, it should be acknowledged that the film consciously plays down the nationalism associated with space race. While the flag on the moon is visible in several shots of the film, it is mostly presented in long shots. Indeed, these shots are so striking because they exist in pointed contrast to how Chazelle shoots so much of the film. A lot of First Man is shot in intense close-up, so these long-distance shots are noticeable because they don’t necessarily fit with the rest of the movie’s aesthetic. This would seem to be the point of the exercise.

To be fair, there are any number of pragmatic reasons why Chazelle would choose not to make this a movie about nationalism and politics even beyond the raging culture war. Most obviously, that story has already been told. Repeatedly. The image of the planting of the flag is iconic. Everybody knows the story. Trying to tell a story focused on processes or mechanics would be to retread familiar ground. The Right Stuff had covered this aspect of the story definitively, as have countless other films and television series.

First Man tries to find a novel angle on the familiar story, and does so by focusing on Armstrong himself. The journey to the moon in First Man is presented as a personal (and borderline spiritual) one rather than a nationalist one. Armstrong is a man who wants to leave Earth, who wants to be free of the gravity that is weighing him down. This is the angle into the story, to the point that the politics are very much secondary. Armstrong discovers that he will be commanding the lunar mission while washing his hands in a grotty bathroom. First Man is not a patriotic epic, because it’s not an epic at all.

The experience of space flight in First Man is always deeply personal. This is reflected in both the direction and the script. Chazelle shoots the movie in a lot of tight hand-held close-ups in cramped spaces, and frequently puts allows the audience to either stare at or see through the eyes of the astronauts. The film features a lot of lens flare and a number of sequences features reflections and distortions in the camera lens, to emulate the effect of staring out through the visor of an astronaut’s helmet.

As far as First Man is concerned, the journey into space is not really about governments or politics. It is about people. In particular, it its about the kind of person who would be driven to make this journey. The trip to the moon is presented as something very personal to Neil. Early in the film, he is asked to articulate the importance of space flight. He does not respond with a political or social talking point. Instead, Armstrong argues that space flight allows a person “to see maybe what [they] should have seen long ago.” Space flight is not about borders, but about transcendence. It is about personal self-actualisation.

Every stage of the journey is filtered through Armstrong’s own personal journey as he comes to terms with the loss of his daughter. He talks to his children about the process of “quarantine” and how he’ll be “in isolation”, rendering the process a physical reflection of his own emotional isolation from his family. The film repeatedly likens going into space to stepping “outside”, and there’s a recurring sense that all that Armstrong is looking for is some space where he might be free of the forces that are weighing him down. The entire cosmos is the background from an intensely personal psychodrama. It is riveting.

Chazelle seems to draw more from films like Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey than from The Right Stuff or Apollo 13. This is reflected in the way that he shoots the film, with an emphasis on tight close-ups and a desire to emphasise the bewildering subjective experience of space flight as something inherently alien. This makes a certain amount of sense. The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 are both heavily inspired by real life events, and so lean towards a more objective perspective on events, trying to get an omniscient point of view on everything as it happened.

In contrast, Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey are both fictional stories, and so are more focused on what these experiences would be like rather than the finer details of what actually happened. In Interstellar, a journey into space becomes a personal metaphor for a father whose job separates him from his children. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, an individual astronaut experiences something that is so far beyond his comprehension that audiences are still arguing over what it actually means. First Man is novel in applying this subjective personal approach to a true story of the space race.

It is possible to be cynical about this, to read this as an example of the breakdown of the idea of community or collective in favour of a self-centred “me” generation. After all, why should the tax payer spend billions of dollars for one man to have a personal epiphany? This is an interesting, if somewhat loaded question. Again, it is perhaps impossible to examine outside the lens of the heightened modern political moment. Certain commenters might attempt to write off First Man as a classic story filtered through the prism of a stereotypically entitled “millennial” culture, where everything is about the individual in question.

The obvious answer is that somebody was always going to lead the mission to the moon, and so it is perfectly valid to ask why this somebody in particular. More than that, though, there is perhaps something fundamentally American in approaching the story of the moon landing as a tale of individualism, of one person’s unique experience while caught in the sweep of history. After all, the American Dream is nominally built upon the idea that the individual is important and distinct, that everybody matters and that every person has autonomy.

This is the perhaps the most fundamental political belief of this idealised America, even if the real America has often fallen well short of it. Atrocities like slavery result from the denial and suppression of that individual autonomy, for example. Although the idealised America is built on the idea that any individual can succeed if they are talented enough, studies suggest that this is an aspiration rather than a reality. However, the beauty of something like the space race is that it speaks to the idea of what the United States should be, more than what it actually is.

In fact, that right to individual self-determination, and the belief in the importance of individualism, was a major part of the American narrative of the Cold War. That respect for individual autonomy was a large part of what distinguished the United States from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, at least in theory. In this way, First Man feels almost like the perfect way to tell this story. It is not a story about the government or the collective or the greater good. It is the story of one man who did something extraordinary and the forces that brought him to that point.

In some ways, the decision to tone down the political aspects of the traditional narrative suits a biographical picture of Neil Armstrong. The astronaut was private and apolitical. Armstrong famously declined several offers (from both parties) to embark upon a political career following his return from the moon. This is in contrast to other astronauts who used their platform to advocate for personal causes. As such, there is something entirely appropriate in the way that First Man avoids devoting any real time to the politics of the space race and instead focuses most tightly upon its leading man.

First Man is understandably wary of the idea of the space race as a political football. Repeatedly over the course of the film, Chazelle emphasises the cost of the space race “in money and in lives.” The director makes a point to include protests from marginalised groups and talking head footage from people wondering whether the government should prioritise caring for its more disaffected citizens before throwing somebody into space to beat the Russians at a game that arguably has no long-term pay-off.

More than that, First Man is quite candid about the fact that these political pressures were as dangerous to the astronauts as they were helpful to the overall mission. Politicians repeatedly wonder how they might cut corners in terms of cost, to justify this endeavour to the tax payers. At the climax of the film, following a horrific loss of life following a very simple safety malfunction, the political powers that be do not respond by increasing health and safety resources for the astronauts, but by cutting the budget and forcing these men to use substandard equipment to accomplish their goals.

More to the point, there is arguably something to be said for First Man‘s desire to tone down the patriotic or nationalist elements of this story in the present climate. In the past few years, American nationalism has taken a decidedly extremist turn, and has arguably become indistinguishable from ethno-nationalism. The current political administration has built a platform of American identity that is largely built on a repudiation of those more idyllic virtues associated (whether by design or with accuracy) with the space race.

After all, that type of idealised American identity is very much at odds with contemporary iterations of American nationalism. The moon landing represented a vision of American idealism that looked outwards and reached towards the sky in order to expand the frontiers of human knowledge. In contrast, the current political administration is dedicated to building a literal wall around the country and defining the boundaries of American exceptionalism, while also extinguishing the American Dream as it exists for immigrants both legal and otherwise.

There are other factors that might render contemporary American nationalism unpalatable. There is the simple fact that so much of the current administration has rendered nationalism indistinguishable from racism. The biggest driving force behind voting for Donald Trump was racial anxiety. The political philosophy of the Trump administration is very consciously geared towards what Nazi-saluting allies describe as “peaceful ethnic cleansing.” Trump was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. The administration plans to curb legal immigration as well as illegal immigration. They are tearing children from the arms of parents.

In this context, it makes sense to divorce the story of the moon landing from American nationalism, to suggest that the most important part of the story might not be the flag that is flying on the lunar surface, but on the people who made the journey in the first place. First Man very consciously and very overtly avoids tying into politics, understanding that an embrace of American nationalist sentiment at this moment in time would be a tacit endorsement of something deeply troubling boiling over in the American consciousness.

Perhaps the most overtly political moment in First Man occurs in a short montage providing a sense of the cultural context for the launch outside of the personal experiences of Neil Armstrong. Gil Scott-Heron makes a small appearance in this sequence, reading his beat poem Whitey On the Moon. It’s possible to read this small scene as a playful acknowledgement by Chazelle over the (perhaps unfair) controversy around La La Land, acknowledging the power imbalances that exist in contemporary American culture.

It might also be something of a cautionary tale, with First Man understanding on a very fundamental level that – at the present moment – it cannot endorse the idea of “whitey on the moon.” By largely divorcing Armstrong from the political context, First Man instead becomes a story about the first man on the moon. It’s a canny and timely choice.

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