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My 12 for ’18: Seeing It Again for the First Time in “First Man”

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number three.

It is difficult to separate First Man from the cultural war around it.

There is always at least one piece of awards fare that generates a storm in the proverbial teacup, often around hot-button political issues. La La Land was the most contentious Best Picture nominee of its awards cycle, generating heated debate around issues of identity and cultural appropriation. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was the most controversial film the following year, most notably around its treatment of race and the portrayal of racism within local police departments.

First Man seems increasingly unlikely to secure a Best Picture nomination. This is likely in part due to its underwhelming box office performance, but also down to the toxic debate that has unfolded around it. It seems strange that the people so angry at First Man would be fine with the likely nomination of Green Book or Bohemian Rhapsody in its stead, but that is another debate entirely. First Man was a film that was everything (and nothing) to everybody (and nobody), a seemingly impossible feat.

First Man notably had too few flags for Marco Rubio. First Man also notably had too many flags for Richard Brody. First Man had too little patriotism for Buzz Aldrin. First Man had too much patriotism for Slate film writer Mark Joseph Stern. This is a remarkable and notable accomplishment of itself. At a point when the world seems divided on absolutely everything, First Man seemed to unite both sides of the political spectrum in outrage. That is one giant leap, after all.

First Man is a remarkable film in a number of ways. On the surface, it is very old-fashioned. It is a story about the space race. There are plenty of those. First Man belongs to a rich tradition of cinema that includes films like Apollo 13Hidden Figures and The Right Stuff, triumphant odes to a unique American accomplishment. The space race holds an important place within the American national myth, one of the greatest accomplishments of the American Century and a huge symbolic victory in the Cold War.

As such, it is interesting to approach the space race once again, as the American Century comes to an end. After all, the United States is arguably a global power in decline. There is a lot of anxiety about the political, economical and cultural ascent of China. The global order is shifting. The United States is no longer a moral leader in the world. All of these changes provide an interesting background against which the moon landing might be revisited. What does one of the greatest symbolic achievements of the United States look like in these turbulent times?

This perhaps explains why First Man is so contentious to so many people. It is an act of reappropriating a familiar and iconic myth. It has all the patriotic weight of Kennedy’s “new frontier” pressing down upon it, which immediately generates tension and anxiety. It also represents an attempt to shift the emphasis within that myth, to retell that story in a way that challenges the conventions such stories. Neil Armstrong and the moon landing mean a lot to people, and so trying to approach that story in a different way will inevitably be provocative.

After all, this is a world in which certain populist strands of patriotism seem downright dangerous. The slogan “America First” can trace its roots back to Nazi sympathisers in the thirties and forties. The promise to “make America great again” comes with a willingness to separate families and lock children in cages. If films like Vice and I, Tonya are effectively biographical pictures for the post-fact era, then First Man is a patriotic narrative for an era in which patriotism has become increasingly toxic.

Chazelle does this in a number of ways. First Man acknowledges the extremes of the opinions on moon landing. Perhaps wary of being seen to appropriate black culture after La La Land, Chazelle allows the entirety of Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey’s on the Moon to play out over a montage of protests. At the climax, Chazelle also acknowledges the impact of the footage of the moon landing on the popular consciousness around the world as a shared experience on a scale that was previously unimaginable. Chazelle does not take sides, but he acknowledges both competing opinions.

First Man focuses very heavily on the character of Neil Armstrong as played by Ryan Gosling. However, First Man is careful not to present Armstrong as an unambiguously heroic figure who embodies the best of American exceptionalism. The version of Neil Armstrong who appears in First Man is not an icon or a role model. He is not a legend or a mythic figure. He is not a “great man” in the way that the characters in these sorts of stories tend to be. He is not a hero in the same way that the leads in Hidden Figures might be considered heroes.

Harking back to Chazelle’s work on Whiplash, Armstrong is incredibly focused on the task at hand. Armstrong is a man completely dedicated to accomplishing what he sets out to do. This is a trait that is frequently valourised in male protagonists, demonstrating a sense of purpose and single-mindedness that is often presented as a virtue. These traits are frequently coded as masculine in popular culture. In Hollywood terms, these characteristics are inevitably associated with the valourisation of the (mostly masculine) “auteur.”

A more simplistic story would present these aspects of Armstrong’s character as unqualified virtues, as proof that the astronaut was truly exceptional and so worthy of the honour of being the first man to step on the moon. However, Chazelle’s study of this sort of masculine drive – in both Whiplash and La La Land – is decidedly more ambiguous. Chazelle’s work tends to suggest that such commitment and fixation is unhealthy, that it is destructive. For Chazelle, there is always a trade-off, and the director rarely reassures the audience that the trade-off is worth it.

First Man is arguably even more ambiguous than Whiplash or La La Land. It arrives at a moment when masculinity is in crisis, particularly American masculinity. The past couple of years have seen an interrogation of concepts like the “auteur” and the fetishisation of that sort of single-mindedness, both as depicted in and in play during the creation of popular culture. Modern pop culture is a lot less willing to forgive such single-mindedness, a lot more willing to challenge and debate the impact of behaviour that earlier generations celebrated.

Had Bernardo Bertolucci passed away only a few years earlier, it seems like his legacy would be assured. However, his obituaries were often qualified by discussions of the abuses that he visited upon actors like Maria Schneider. Quentin Tarantino has been subject to criticism for injuries that Uma Thurman received during the production of Kill Bill. This is an industry where Stanley Kubrick’s sustained bullying of Shelley Duvall in The Shining is cited as an example of his commitment to his art.

First Man is very explicit on the emotional toll exacted by Armstrong’s single-minded commitment to the moon landing. Indeed, First Man repeatedly and consciously invites the audience to question Armstrong’s psychological health. One of the film’s recurring metaphors suggests that Armstrong’s desire to leave the atmosphere is really just an expression of a deeper desire to leave anything that might require an emotional engagement. When the conversation turns personal, Armstrong doesn’t just leave the party; he leaves the planet.

First Man makes it clear that this is not healthy behaviour. The film explicitly roots Armstrong’s commitment in something personal rather than a patriotic ideal. Armstong is not only motivated by the death of his young daughter, but by his inability to talk about his sense of loss. Armstrong’s actions are repeatedly emphasised as a desire to place a distance between himself and his family; Janet struggling to maintain open lines of communication with NASA, Neil struggling to explain to his son Rick that he may not survive the journey.

First Man presents Armstrong as a figure of curiousity and pity, more than as stoic American masculinity. Armstrong is frequently presented as an outsider, either unable or unwilling to articulate how he is feeling. The movie’s moonscapes are stunning and striking, but its most emotionally affecting moments often hinge on Armstrong trying to say something, but finding himself unable to force the words from his mother; notably, a short and stunted attempt at conversation with

Indeed, the closing scenes of the film emphasis that his journey to the moon cannot fix the underlying emotional issues at play, despite Armstrong’s attempts to avoid them. On returning from the surface of the moon, Armstrong is isolated in quarantine. The film’s closing scene between Janet and Neil Armstrong find themselves trying to communicate, but separated by a sheet of glass. They try to touch, but the glass keeps them apart. It is a literal expression of how Armstrong has isolated himself, cut himself off from the people around him.

As much as it is impossible to separate First Man from the culture war raging around it, it is also impossible to separate the film’s ending from the real-life events that would follow. Janet and Neil Armstrong would divorce in the mid-nineties, with Armstrong remarrying almost immediately. Despite the high price “both in money and in lives” of journeying to the moon, nobody has set foot on the moon since 1972. First Man earnestly asks whether the physical and emotional damage of the lunar mission was worth it, and it doesn’t provide a clear-cut answer.

That’s a very brave choice, which elevates First Man above so many of the films that explore similar themes and ideas.

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