This contains spoilers for First Man (by which I mean bigger spoilers than “They get to the Moon”).
Ryan Gosling has given many performances that are the equivalent of a glass of water that had some fruit briefly dunked in it – he is so stoic and blank that he just gives you the hint of an idea of the concept of an emotion. Often, as in Drive, these performances have left me cold. But in First Man Gosling – playing one of America’s most iconically emotionally distant men – finds another place to go within that stoicism. As Neil Armstrong Gosling lets us get beyond that stoic exterior and gives us the fragile, live wire trauma that is hiding just beneath the surface.
In First Man Gosling plays Armstrong as a guy who has to go farther away from other people than any human being in history in order to even begin processing the traumatic events of his past, and the script by Josh Singer inverts Armstrong’s famous Moon landing lines. This is a small step for mankind, hindsight shows us, but it is a huge step for Neil Armstrong who, in the shadows of a crater on the Moon, can finally let go of his dead daughter.
Within the context of the movie it’s the death of his daughter that leaves a psychic wound from which Armstrong cannot quite recover, but it seems to go deeper than that. As presented in the movie Neil Armstrong is a man of his time, a man raised to believe that men suffer quietly, reservedly, and that no expression of pain – physical or otherwise – should mar the tranquil, wooden surface of his masculinity. Karen dying of a brain tumor as just a little girl may be what haunts him, but the film hints at a lifetime of pain and sadness that he carries with him like the tiny name bracelet he takes to the Moon.
In this way First Man is a tragedy; it’s the story of a guy who is so buttoned up that not only can he not get past his pain, he can’t even live in his triumph. He’s a man who is robbed of all the highs and lows as he struggles to maintain an even keel at all time. And it’s a struggle; Gosling gives us the rheumy eyes and taut, sweaty expression of a guy who is just maintaining his facade. Everything roils just under the surface; if he went an inch one way he would read as dead, an inch the other he would read as a man full of wriggling snakes.
Director Damien Chazelle approaches First Man not so much as a space movie, a The Right Stuff for the 2018, but as a domestic drama with punctuating moments of the space race. That means he shoots the scenes between Armstrong and his equally stoic and suffering wife, Janet (Claire Foy) with an insistent, jittery camera that gets in close. The Gemini and Apollo capsules were claustrophobic spaces – as big as the back seat of a Buick, I’ve read – and Chazelle finds this marriage almost equally claustrophobic. Yet while they are jammed in together in their lives, Neil and Janet often seem miles and miles apart.
The idea of astronaut movie as domestic drama is intriguing, but cannot ever quite work. That’s not due to a deficiency in filmmaking but rather in a savage inequality of what works cinematically. Janet wrangling her rambunctious boys will simply never be as cinematically fascinating as Neil trying to stop his space capsule as it enters a potentially fatal spin while in orbit. Chazelle intercuts these scenes, showing us these two characters trying to maintain control, but the nature of the movie screen is that it will always render the more dynamic and extraordinary sequence the most interesting.
The only real comparison for First Man is The Right Stuff (Chazelle even visually quotes the famous Chuck Yeager crash landing scene), and Chazelle takes a very different tack than Philip Kaufmann did. In The Right Stuff we observe the astronauts; their masculine wall as test pilots keeps even us at a distance, and this renders the story mythic and sweeping. In First Man Chazelle wants to get inside Armstrong, and he’s chosen a subject who is exceptionally resistant to that. So we have this character study of a man who would prefer we not study him, and that makes this movie as much of a challenge as getting to the moon. We have these two inhospitable, unfriendly places – the lunar surface and Armstrong’s inner life – and the point isn’t to conquer them but rather to gain new perspective from them.
After all, that’s Armstrong’s stated goal for his Moon shot. When doing his interview for the Gemini program, the precursor to Apollo, he says that space exploration is important because of how it can change our view of what is happening here, on Earth. I don’t know if that’s something he actually did say, but that was one of the main impacts of the trip to the Moon – for the first time we had photos of the planet taken from a reasonable distance where we could see the whole Big Blue Marble. This helped spark the modern environmental movement, as people could finally understand visually the connected nature of the world.
The perspective on masculinity that First man offers is profound in its own way. Armstrong goes to the Moon, joined only by Buzz Aldrin, a guy he doesn’t even like, and it is there that he can finally let the tears flow. Standing on the edge of a crater he drops Karen’s name bracelet into the eternal lunar blackness, his helmet shade visor lifted for a brief moment so we can look at his face as he finally, after a decade, allows himself to feel. It’s only here, hundreds of thousands of miles from other people, that he can do this. Throughout the movie we’ve seen Neil disengage in moments of emotion – leaving a wake, disappearing into silence when confronted with a neighbor’s empty swingset, hearing about the deaths of his friends, coming home after a brush with death in a test flight – and here he is finally able to be open to his feelings.
But First Man doesn’t offer this as some kind of solution, that going to the Moon and letting Karen go and letting the tears come solves everything. The movie decides to end on a very telling moment; back from the Moon Neil is placed in quarantine, just in case he brought something weird back with him. Still solitary, he putters about until Janet comes to visit him. The last shot of the film is the two separated no longer by two hundred thousand miles but by a pane of glass, and yet the distance is exactly the same. The movie doesn’t tell you that Neil and Janet eventually divorce, but you know.
The first thought I had as the credits rolled on First Man, after that final shot, was that Neil Armstrong was Ron Burgundy, trapped in a glass case of emotion. It’s a funny thought but it’s also really true; where Ron was a parody of masculinity, Neil Armstrong is a paragon of it, and both are unable to deal with their emotional vulnerability. Of course the question First Man raises is whether or not Neil Armstrong would have been the first man on the Moon if he didn’t have that glass case around him. We see other men, more in touch with their emotions, die. Buzz Aldrin, who is so in touch with his emotions that it makes him a huge asshole, ends up the second man on the Moon, a footnote.
Gosling is in almost every scene of the movie, but he’s supported by an extraordinary cast, many of whom are familiar actors who are transformed by playing 1960s clean cut astronauts. Patrick Fugit of Almost Famous is all grown up and a man, while Ethan Embry is, as he tends to be these days, unrecognizable. Kyle Chandler shows up as Deke Slayton, offering his Kyle Chandler-ness as a convenient shortcut for “tough dad energy,” and Lukas Haas brings his “nervous skinny guy” energy to Michael Collins. Corey Stoll is fantastic as Aldrin, really getting at the heart of the assholery of the guy who “just says what everybody is thinking,” and Jason Clarke is, as always, absolutely gripping as Ed White, the first American to walk in space (and Clarke actually looks like White).
There are very, very few women in this movie. The astronaut’s wives are held to the side, with the exception of Claire Foy as Janet. It’s hard for me to parse what it is that doesn’t work about Foy for me in this film – is it the script itself, giving her so little room and so little to do? Is it my own misogyny, which sees a woman who is tight and tough as unlikable? Is it Foy’s accent, which gave me whiplash over the course of the film (Southern? Midwest? Irish?)? Is it all of these things? It’s not so much that Foy is bad, but rather that Janet is left in that spot between having too little screentime and too much; she’s never quite fully formed and doesn’t exactly have her own story or arc, and the film focuses on her enough to make you feel the lack of those things. Knowing that the Armstrongs got divorced puts a cap on Janet’s arc, but that cap comes only when you look up the couple of Wikipedia, not when you’re watching the movie.
At first it seems like a biopic about an astronaut would be a left turn for Damien Chazelle, whose first three movies were all about music, or musicals. But it turns out that Chazelle sees jazz in spaceflight; just as jazz is a series of improvisations that encircle and spin off from a centralized structure, so is controlling a spacecraft in moments of crisis. Neil is shown as improvising in the moment, trying a thing, doing something unexpected, making a counterintuitive decision, and these are the moments that save his life or lead to triumph. There’s Mission Control, giving their tempo, here’s Armstrong (Neil, not Louis) swinging and improvising with the tools at his command.
The space scenes are the best scenes in the film; Chazelle is a master at finding tension in the smallest moments, of bringing us inside the capsule. The space sequences are claustrophobic yet majestic; he rarely brings us outside the astronauts’ occluded POV, but when he does it’s breathtaking. When the Eagle lands on the Moon we are treated to the desolate vistas that are so familiar in their alien quality and, in the IMAX presentation I saw, they are totally enveloping. This is a sense of pacing that comes naturally to Chazelle; he understands how much he can build up by keeping us jammed in these tin cans before he must pull out and show us the capsule sailing between the stars.
But he’s at war with himself in some of the other scenes. Chazelle is an emotional filmmaker, and he’s busting at the seams in the moments of repressed domesticity. It’s why his camera shakes and swoops so much; the frame shudders with the energy that is being held back by Neil and Janet. It’s a lot, and sometimes it’s too much. When the camera gets sedate the impact is greater, and some of the film’s best moments are when the camera slows down and holds steady.
Still, working with Gosling and Foy Chazelle is able to bring out the repression in a way that does not itself feel repressed; too many movies about laconic characters are boring or empty, full of long spaces. First Man is not like that, and I’m not sure that Chazelle CAN make a boring movie.
You can go to the Moon, but you’re still bringing yourself with you. There’s no distance you can go to outrun your pain – it will keep up with every step, every mile. You can feel it, or you can hide it, quarantine it, keep it inside that glass case of emotion. At the end of the movie Neil Armstrong is looking at magazines and postcards and bookmarks that celebrate the historic moment of the Moon walk, and he is distant from it, detached, maybe bemused. This is the price you pay for never being willing to go as low as you feel – you never get to go as high, even when you’ve gone higher than any human being in history.
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