First Man: Cultural Breakthrough

The truth of Neil Armstrong (at least of Damien Chazelle’s version of him) is also the truth of Ryan Gosling: he’s an everyday guy expanded to such enormity that you wonder if he ever existed. He’s men in a man. First Man doesn’t invite us into this man’s reasoning. Some viewers will be tempted to pronounce the film “detached,” for casting someone who is known for keeping his thoughts to himself as a man who must have done the same. But as a quiet man trained by his generation not to show emotion, he becomes a figure of great importance: that tiny lie contains more truth than a thousand grand speeches, or flag plantings. First Man is about nothing less than the truth of the American male, the family values that hold him up, and his almost deranged disregard for his own survival for the sake of an accomplishment that would live after he is gone. It is a film that glorifies America and also humbles it before the universe. It is finally the achievement in art that matches the science it depicts.

The film does not depict the flag being planted on the moon and this will probably damage it at the box office (there’s no shortage of Google articles about it). It’s a glaring omission in a film about details. I bring it up early to banish it early. Instead of asking why the scene was omitted, I would prefer to ask: what does Chazelle not do, by omitting it?

He does not fetishize the flag for a corporate product like a film. He does not manipulate the audience to swell with pride for an icon rather than the feelings that icon should represent. First Man is one of the most patriotic films I’ve ever seen because it glorifies the reality of living as an American family, the idea of the country that the flag depicts, and the guts it took to do the most amazing thing in history without seeking glory for it. Armstrong doesn’t get his chance to plant the flag on screen because he represents it too well. His willingness to put aside himself and remain calm in the face of the universe testifies to the purity of his upbringing in a country that valued his abilities enough to let him be our first ambassador to the final frontier. I comprehend the fear that some people have that films have made “patriotism” a bad word (I always think of the line from Superman Returns, “Truth, justice, and all that stuff,” and the audible groans of disappointment in the crowded theater). First Man is not a culprit of this thinking, nor of the strategy, as some have suggested, that omitting the flag-planting will make the film play better in China. The film is full of American flags, portrayed respectfully – it simply omitted that flag. This film would require two hours of omissions to play in China.

The film has no strut, no sense of marking territory, and offers no way to interpret its actions as those of people only out for a nation’s glory. This does not lighten the accomplishments being portrayed, or ambiguate them. At one point, during a slam-style poetry monologue of moon mission protestors called “Whitey’s on the Moon,” many viewers would be tempted to agree with them if the film had included a grand flag-planting, or an important speech. But Armstrong doesn’t make them. Instead, he responds to a valiant question with a word, two if we’re lucky (to be selected for this mission, he says he is "pleased"). But he is the cipher to decode how we’re meant to feel about all this. His reticence is the key to his generation, to his achievement, and to himself.

Armstrong is haunted by the death of his young daughter in this film much more than by his own death in space. He’s stony and cavalier in training montages, and blatant with his wife (Claire Foy, nearly bursting with suppressed power). This is a man incapable of expressing how he feels, especially to those he loves the most. This is an unbroken truth of his character in First Man, who experiences no arc of development like a well-written husband ought to. “He’s a good engineer but he’s distracted,” someone says, and not just in reference to his daughter’s death. Armstrong was a pent-up man, a man who probably had an apple pie smile reserved for special occasions, but no instinct to wear it out. I believe it is First Man’s primary mission to give this man a means of expression, possible only in film, by fabricating his spirit from this unique point of view of these famous events, about which he himself had so little to say.

Chazelle takes excruciating care with Armstrong's first step off the lunar lander. Imagine the gravity of it. This is a man who did not dream of space; there was no Star Trek for him to grow up on. He was not selected for this mission until his fellows died (the scene is powerful in its realistic brevity). Now this is something he just has to do. Observe his son’s reaction to hearing about his father’s mission: “Can I go play outside?” He doesn’t understand it enough to be afraid of it, or proud of it. He might only wonder absently why daddy cares so much about nothingness to leave him for it (a closeup of his betrayed young eyes tells that story). The most pressing question would be what motivates this man, who is almost psychotically negligent of his own safety and yet all the way to the moon he sees images of his family on its surface.

Many viewers will feel that First Man doesn’t have an answer, yet this is how we can use Armstrong to decode the feat, which wasn’t his, as he was fond of deflecting, but the feat of 400,000 hardworking people. They were his compulsion, and by humbling himself before them his quietude becomes universal: that is the moment Chazelle depicts, when Armstrong leaves the lander and goes off-the-record to the East Crater, and does and thinks things of which we can only dream. I would argue he knew it was more than 400,000: I believe to him it was the feat of a way of life.

First Man draws Armstrong’s wife into the action to acquire her perspective, which is as much a new vantage point as the surface of the moon. Foy has eyes that are burdened by passion: they love the qualities that make Armstrong who he is enough to fear his use of them. She's troubled to the point of regretting her inability to yield in the face of trouble. She isn’t a movie scientist’s nagging wife, pulling him away from work for kisses and blaming him for everything wrong in her life. She is the unseen force that compels Armstrong to space and also back to earth; she is America, to him. She says she married him for “stability,” in a time when that was the sexiest thing in the world. Yes, and Armstrong goes to space without becoming a daredevil. He seems to have enough rational calm in reserve to stabilize an entire planet.

The film’s technology is seemingly modeled from him. Justin Hurwitz, who composed for Chazelle’s La La Land, works minimally in First Man with a classical touch. The sounds in space recall Theremins and strings and suites rimming off of 2001: A Space Odyssey. His score is filled with joyous mystery. The effects dazzle in the way I think they must have in Kubrick’s film: First Man appears to recompose NASA footage into modern definition, defying their origins as pixels, using computers and even some miniatures to render a reality exaggerated only by the need to see it. The moon landing sequence particularly fulfills a need for the viewer that Armstrong doesn’t have, for the irrational childishness of beautiful objects.

I’ve had this desire personally ever since I realized that I wasn’t born early enough to see anything that amazing on TV. I’m certain this is the closest I’ll get. Earth is made more enormous by this transition to fiction; I imagine technicians working on this film like the ones in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, painting the world down to the quaintest breeze and slightest fiord. They are perhaps the only people on the production who didn’t need to be humble. Hurwitz’s almost hummable score imbues each scene with subtle beauty, the kind of music no one will nominate for anything because it works so well that they didn’t notice it. It’s accompaniment for a feeling. Chazelle similarly fades behind his subject, working almost entirely in intimate handheld views, not only absorbing this history but also seeing the poetry between its lines. That is what he makes First Man from.

Someone asks Armstrong why we should go to space. He says, with uncommon garrulity, “It allows us to see things that maybe we should’ve seen a long time ago.” For many people, glory was the goal of this mission. Chazelle envisions the moon as a place where that glory doesn’t exist, where you can see that the earth has no white border lines on it, where people seem so much more important precisely because they seem so small. The idea that Armstrong might have thought of his love for his daughter as the universal truth when he became the first man to walk on an unearthly surface is the self-testament this country needs, at the end of all its grand flag-planting and speech-making, to believe in the best version of itself again.

I must admit that the effect was contagious: the Universal Parks and Resorts logo that appeared after the credits suddenly seemed very small.

This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, October 16, 2018

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Universal Pictures

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