For a film about a historical event which looks ahead to a future where we move past partisan politics into a world of discovery, First Man has turned out to be surprisingly political and controversial.
Perhaps this was inevitable. Very little that emerges, culturally, from the American sphere right now isn’t loaded with some level of subtext, be it a coded sideswipe at the alt-right or pointed rejection of the liberal left. Everything has to be ‘relevant’. You almost want First Man to run and hide from such analysis.
Primarily because Damien Chazelle has clearly not set out, with his third major picture as a burgeoning American auteur (if not his third movie overall), to make an overtly political picture. First Man, when you break down the nuts and bolts, is unexpectedly intimate in how it chooses to characterise the legendary Neil Armstrong and his “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. Adapted from James R. Hansen’s book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, originally courted as far back as 2003 by Clint Eastwood, First Man wants to both capture the awe and sheer Olympian technological and physical feat of landing on the Moon, but equally explore what such a journey outward means when contrasted with an inward gaze.
Armstrong, portrayed with restrained dignity by Ryan Gosling (coming off akin to a younger, morose Harrison Ford), is a quiet, serious, solemn figure haunted across a 1960’s filled with advancement in the field of aeronautic engineering following the tragic death of his daughter Karen. He spends the entire movie grieving and finds, in his determination to be part of such a historic mission, a means of catharsis. He can’t find it with his wife Janet (Claire Foy, cornering the market these days in put upon, quietly strong women with difficult husbands), or his son, but finds it in the stars, in some level of progressive hope.
This is where First Man comes under some level of criticism, in how it doesn’t do enough either to promulgate the American success story in Apollo 11’s unparalleled voyage into the great beyond, or that it furthers the myth that white Americans are almost solely responsible for the United States’ great achievements in history. Chazelle touches on some of these aspects; he memorably, as Apollo is about to launch, has a black protestor singing the ironic ballad ‘Whitey on the Moon’ and intercuts between the two, and there are mentions here and there of ensuring the Space Race against the Russians is won for the sake of a post-Kennedy American psyche, wounded by Vietnam and rapid counter-cultural changes to its society.
First Man, however, would be a weaker film had it dwelled on these political and pointedly sociological aspects at the expense of being about the effort, the struggle, of men like Armstrong overcoming a range of odds to achieve something truly extraordinary; be it previous Apollo (or Gemini) missions going fatally wrong before they got off the starting grid, or the reality of Congress concerns about spending taxpayers money on what, to some, is whimsy. Why *are* ‘whiteys’ landing on the Moon, looking out at the stars, when we haven’t figured out our problems on Earth yet? Chazelle doesn’t need to ask this question because it ripples under everything he puts on screen.
How could it not? These are questions that we consider today with far greater urgency than a 1960’s driven by post-war hope, after JFK outlined his plans for a lunar mission before his assassination, that we may move toward a progressive, democratic society with the advancement of technology from the ashes of death and war. This was the decade that brought us Star Trek, after all. We seem to have forgotten that hope now. We’re too preoccupied by our fears of fascist uprisings, terrorist attacks, climate change, and on and on and on to even consider how important a cultural myth something like the Moon landing was. First Manwants to try and remind us how important it was.
Let’s face it, Armstrong was always a mythic figure since that tentative step onto another planetary surface. His name will echo across the span of human history alongside Christopher Columbus as a pioneer, particularly if one day we venture further than the Moon, and a future akin to Star Trekbecomes close to a reality. Chazelle’s film attempts to help us understand the man propping up that modern American myth, to understand a level of the psychology behind such a mission, and cut to the very human core, and human cost, of that first step into the unknown. We spend more time with Armstrong’s troubled relationship with Janet and his family as we do in space or, indeed, on the Moon.
In that sense, Chazelle is very much looking to ape two filmmakers in particular: Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Nolan. First Man has the breadth and scope at times of Kubrick, in scenes which reflect 2001: A Space Odyssey, while having the soul and humanity of Nolan. Much like the latter, Chazelle delivers phenomenal sound design and pitches you in the very heart of the spacecraft; scenes of Armstrong conducting atmosphere-breaking tests and launching into orbit remind you of Dunkirk’s cockpit claustrophobia and remarkable sense of tension. First Man makes you feel what Armstrong and his contemporaries felt in these dangerous, gravity-defying escapades inside nascent technology which at times feels held together at the seams; Chazelle even cuts to the rivets keeping Apollo 11 in place at times as if to underscore the point.
For every immersive voyage into space or conducted test, First Mangrounds us in the drama of the heart and soul of an American family touched by, to some degree, destiny. Neil Armstrong is not portrayed as a swaggering, charismatic example of all-American braggadocio and this could be why reactions have been, indeed, reactionary and polarising. He isn’t making America great again as much as he represents a very human ideal, to seek and push the boundaries of what is possible, even when driven by the most personal of tragedy and sorrow. There may yet be a film out there about the Moon landing, directed by a Michael Bay or some such, which makes it about the ego-centric American need to be the best.
First Man isn’t it. Thankfully.