firstman

First Man

First Man

Damien Chazelle (2018)

So the last time that director Damien Chazelle and lead actor Ryan Gosling got together they gave us La La Land, an interesting and imaginative new take on the Hollywood musical that was entertaining though hardly deserving of all the critical hype it engendered. Their newest effort, the story of Neil Armstrong, first man to set foot on the moon, is a horse of a different color. On the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film gets an 88 percent approval rating from critics, but only a 62 percent rating from audience members. I’m always interested in such discrepancies, but it isn’t difficult to guess the source of the negative audience reactions.

When the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August, it was first reported that the iconic image of Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s planting the American flag on the lunar surface was not recreated in the film, and this immediately set off a political controversy that had certain elements of the moviegoing public up in arms. Thus a good number of the negative reviews by “audience members” were posted by people who had not seen the film and were boycotting it and deeming it anti-American because it failed to include the scene. The fact that Gosling is a Canadian was even given as a reason for the scene’s omission, although of course he was not the director, writer or editor of the film. Buzz Aldrin himself expressed his displeasure with the omission, and Armstrong’s family, who actually had seen the film, was unhappy about it, though they did release a statement saying “We do not feel this movie is anti-American in the slightest. Quite the opposite.”

The family is, of course, correct. And the flag is clearly seen in several shots of the lunar surface. It’s just the actual planting of it that is not there. And most people actually watching the entire film will understand that the film’s focus on Armstrong’s inner emotional turmoil in those moments would have made that scene aesthetically a distraction at the time.

But there are also knocks on the film from the other direction. The New Yorker review said the film was “worthy of enduring as a right-wing fetish object.” From beginning to end there is no doubt that the United States is in a space race with the Soviet Union, and that the USSR is leading the race for the majority of the ’60s. The sole purpose of NASA is to beat the Soviets to the moon, thereby demonstrating the superior will, ingenuity, political system and moral fiber of Americans. After one American success, an astronaut at mission control shouts out “Call the Soviets—tell them to go fuck themselves!” That flag flies on the moon in the end, and as the news of the moon landing is trumpeted around the world, a French woman in a TV interview proclaims that she never doubted the Americans’ success: “I knew they wouldn’t fail.” Thus some moviegoers, particularly foreign ones, have viewed the film as a Trumpesque “America first” propaganda vehicle.

But it is hardly that. If it were, Armstrong’s wife Janet (Claire Foy of television’s The Crown) would probably not have a scene in which she scolds NASA personnel, telling them that they don’t know what they are doing, and that they are nothing but boys playing with balsa wood. And the movie would, like Armstrong himself, completely ignore the changes in society that are taking place in the 1960s—advocates for civil rights and protestors against the Vietnam War, who tend to see the billions of tax dollars spent on the space race as money that could be better spent elsewhere are portrayed in news clips in the film, but essentially ignored by the astronauts. When Armstrong is asked in a news conference why the space program is worth the money, he doesn’t mention the myriad technological advances that it ultimately inspired; rather his answer is detached and cerebral, satisfying to his own mind but probably not to those protestors that nobody in NASA is listening to outside the door. Chazelle does not seem to have any particular axe to grind here—he does not present the protestors as naïve or insincere—he simply seems to be presenting the divided aspects of American life in 1969.

But there is a third and more legitimate complaint that appears in several of the negative audience reviews for the film, and that is that Armstrong himself is not a sympathetic hero, because Gosling portrays him as impenetrably detached, so emotionally enigmatic that viewers found him difficult or impossible to relate to. And there is certainly something to this complaint.

One wonders why it took nearly 50 years for Hollywood to make a film about what many people have regarded as the single most impressive accomplishment of human endeavor and ingenuity. Of course, unlike some of humankind’s other achievements—exciting discoveries, scientific achievements, physical or artistic accomplishments—which were the achievements of a single person, the moon landing was the culmination of well over a decade of concerted effort by a large team of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, pilots, and others. You need drama for a film, and a single hero gives you that kind of drama. And the single hero here had to be the one man who finally first stepped on the moon. And that man was an extremely private, extremely reserved individual who is extremely difficult to dramatize.

It is 13 years since the publication of James R. Hansen’s authorized biography of Armstrong, and it is six years since Neil Armstrong died at the age of 82. And finally, with a script by Josh Singer (who wrote Spotlight and The Post) that turns Armstrong’s stoicism into a major plot point, the film was made. As his story develops, Armstrong’s cool unflappability serves him well from the beginning of the film, when he is shown dealing with a crisis while piloting an X-15 to extreme heights, bouncing off the atmosphere, and nearly crashing with the plane, through his flight on Gemini 8 when his craft goes into a deathly spin after a docking maneuver in space, to his ability to pilot the Eagle lunar landing vehicle through a scary ride to the lunar surface. His unemotional response when he is informed by flight crew director Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler of Manchester by the Sea) that he’s been tapped to pilot the moon landing mission is almost comic.

But while his detached demeanor proves an advantage in his professional career, the film depicts Armstrong’s lack of emotion as a truly significant barrier in the most important relationships of his life. Early in the film, his 2-year-old daughter Karen dies of a brain tumor. It is a devastating loss but one that Armstrong is unable to grieve in any healthy way. It’s one of many things he keeps walled up inside, and one of his wife Jan’s great frustrations is his inability to communicate about this loss. Later in the film, when astronauts Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham of American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook)—NASA’s favored candidate for the first moon landing)—and Armstrong’s close friend Ed White (Jason Clarke of Chappaquiddick) are burned to death in the infamous launch-pad fire on the first Apollo mission, Armstrong is equally incapable of showing his feelings. This area of Armstrong’s life culminates the day before the moon launch, when, in the most dramatic scene of the film, Jan confronts him and forces him to talk with his two sons about the very real possibility that he will not return from this mission. There is a kind of resolution to this in Armstrong’s own mind in a private scene on the moon, which I will not go into here because of enormous spoiler difficulties, but it is a scene that Singer seems to have imagined for the script, rather than one that anyone but Armstrong himself could have actually known about.

Gosling’s challenge is to create a character out of the stoic responses of the First Man. Chazelle chooses to use extreme closeups on him through most of the film, creating the feeling that we are trying to peer into his soul, to pierce through that wall that he keeps perennially raised. But the man is still a mystery by the end of the film, and that is what some viewers seem to have reacted to. He is surrounded by characters with more life and verve who can never quite bring Armstrong out of his invisible fortress. Foy as Mrs. Armstrong is relatable and often frustrated, and Clarke as White is a more human foil to Gosling. Most memorable is probably Corey Stoll (from TV’’s House of Cards) as Aldrin, who is brash, outspoken and arrogant, with a tendency to say the wrong thing and hence for clashing with Armstrong—it’s a dynamic that much more could have been done with before the two of them are cramped together in that lunar module.

But the film’s most impressive aspect is Chazelle’s recreation of what it is like to be in a space capsule, riding a Saturn rocket off a launch pad, tumbling uncontrollably through space, or dying on a fiery launchpad. The shaky camera and extreme closeups contribute to this feeling. Nor is the awed, silent walk on the moon’s surface a feeling that you will soon forget.

The movie is well-made and memorable, though somewhat overlong and difficult to relate to on a personal or emotional level. I’m saying three Tennysons for this one.

 

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