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We need to fail. We need to fail down here so we don’t fail up there.

Movie

First Man
(2018)

 

I was ambivalent about the need for First ManThe space race movie had already been made in The Right Stuff, and couldn’t possibly be bettered, and the “tribulations in space” movie had been one of the better Ron Howard pictures (still only solid, rather than great, though). Was another Hollywood production promulgating the official history of NASA needed? Probably not, as there’s nothing very new here on that score, but what impresses about First Man is rather the perversely unglorifying approach it takes, which isn’t to say it’s anything other than in awe of the risks taken by the risk takers. But the result is a piece that’s almost the opposite of Philip Kaufman’s film in scope, scale and design, despite sharing some of its iconography; it could even be seen as an anti-epic.

Such a viewpoint isn’t about the feats featured, since both Damien Chazelle and Kaufman take pains to emphasise the death-defying career choice of these fledgling astronauts, in what are essentially coffins strapped onto rockets (or boys’ balsa wood model kits, as Claire Foy’s Janet Armstrong suggests at one point, during a not-unmotivated or unreasonable tirade against the absurdity of the enterprise).

Rather, it’s about the man at the centre of them. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is the very definition of interior, buttoned-down and self-controlled. Even by Gosling’s career standards, this is a doozy for that impassive gaze. And then some. What’s going on in Armstrong’s head? Is he unreadable, a smorgasbord of unexpressed emotions? I didn’t find this uncommunicative pose distancing, perhaps because I never got the sense from Gosling’s performance that Armstrong was unfeeling or lacking in emotional range; rather, his comfort zone was to respond with precision and collectedness or not all. Fine for his work, problematic when it came to retreating from the stresses of dealing with his domestic world.

Armstrong is implacable and unmoved for the much of the time; he’d rather immediately leave the family home than have a conversation with his wife about what happened at work that day, which just happened to be a near fatality for him, and has to be duly screamed at before he will sit the kids down and tell them he may not be coming back from the Moon. Which, amusingly, takes on something closer to the form of reporters quizzing him at a press conference. In direct contrast, Janet is in a constant struggle to remain composed. As much as Gosling adopts Armstrong’s inscrutability, Foy wears Janet’s strain all over her face. It’s a remarkable performance, and the sympathy is with her throughout.

I’m not sure how authentic the trauma of the loss of daughter Karen was to Armstrong’s ongoing motivation; I’ve seen it suggested it had little bearing on his devotion to his work, although the scene in which he shuts down a question probing precisely that point represents fine writing and acting; “I think it would be unreasonable to assume that it wouldn’t have some effect“. Regardless, it’s entirely believable that the man we see here would have chosen never to discuss the subject, and when broached, that he’d have retreated into his own inaccessible pain.

That said, it’s still a pat Hollywood arc as presented: the epic journey grounded in personal catharsis as Armstrong throws her bracelet onto the lunar surface (of which, there’s no “evidence”, but the author of the biography on which this is based, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R Hansen, nursed it as a pet theory).

Happier familial scenes find the director apparently at a loss over how to proceed, so falling back on referencing others; the autumnal, lens-flared, handheld of domestic bliss has apparently fallen straight out of The Tree of Life. When it comes to the world of men doing manly things, Chazelle has no such caution; yes, the visual cues in the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle test remind one of Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yaeger staggering out of the desert following a crash in The Right Stuff, but it doesn’t feel an unearned or invalid lift.

Chazelle’s story essentially picks up where The Right Stuff left off with the Mercury programme. The common astronaut to both movies is Gus Grissom (there played by the eminent Fred Ward, here by Shea Whigham), about whom there are notable conspiracy theories (the idea that he his death was actually murder, a consequence of his criticism of the Apollo programme; he didn’t believe there was much chance of it making the Moon on schedule). We also have tropes common to both movies: the team learning the ropes/worrying about the potentialities; the wives’ lives; the mission going wrong and subsequent investigation (in The Right Stuff there’s the hatch of the Liberty Bell 7 blowing, resulting in its loss).

But there’s no progressive sense of achievement or triumphalism to First Man. Janet isn’t merely the obediently supporting wife, and the space flights aren’t portrayed as stunning, poetic experiences, bar the odd snatched moment. Armstrong is engrossed in the work rather than family, but there’s no victory in that, in obvious terms of satisfaction, which rather separates the picture from the sacrifice = achievement formula of Whiplash and La La Land.

There, the ends justify the means, as long as the ends are success; First Man is much more equivocal. Armstrong’s motivation is never voiced as such. He’s driven but not for outwardly-expressed motives. Not for fame, not for the glory of being the first, or for lasting veneration. On that level, at least, the movie represents a more mature, reflective piece of work for Chazelle.

Simply in terms of premise, Chazelle has set himself a very different task, and an uphill challenge; the movie is all in Neil’s head – or in Janet’s, who is unable to get into his head. This reticence in relation to one giant leap, the human achievement, seems to line up with the “Who is all this for?” of Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon and the avoidance of focussing on the American flag.

In the case of the latter, really, in context of the movie, it would have been very odd if it had, suggesting the complaints came from those who hadn’t watched the film and had no clue about the context of the content. One might further infer apathy from the muted tone, towards an accomplishment where scepticism over its veracity simply won’t go away, and indeed grows, the longer return visits are off the agenda (and in the Internet age, it’s a debate in which those on either side of the lunar fence dig their heels in ever more voraciously).

One thing is abundantly clear from First Man; when he’s got a clear idea about tackling a scene, Chazelle is an astonishingly proficient filmmaker. Perhaps the biggest problem here is that the picture peaks with the Gemini 8 mission to dock with the orbiting Agena target vehicle. It’s a masterpiece of a sequence, utterly compelling, even when you can’t really get a fix on what is going on (so reflecting the astronauts’ own experiences). It also perhaps gives us the clearest indication of how Armstrong ticks, as he tersely informs co-pilot David Scott (Christopher Abbot) that he hasn’t got time for his distractions, his concentration focussed on the calculations necessary to adjust their trajectory for docking.

After this comes the fire that kills the Apollo 1 crew, again depicted with consummate diligence. I was less persuaded by the backend of the picture, however; even the scene in which Neil talks to his kids felt like a bit of a fudge (I mean, the chances he wouldn’t come back were fairly high on his previous space mission, surely).

And there’s little tension in the flight itself; even the lunar landing, avoiding a crater, is fairly sedate. It’s almost as if, like the concentration on the flag point, the movie’s about Armstrong getting there, rather than being there. Maybe not even that. If nothing else, however, it does prove you can make a convincing Moon landing in a TV studio (or in a quarry, as the case may be). The other takeaway from this sequence is Justin Hurwitz’s beautiful piece of scoring; it’s curious that he’s only worked with Chazelle thus far, as he must surely be in demand.

There’s another area where First Man distinguishes itself from The Right Stuff; Armstrong’s fellow astronauts barely get a look in. Jason Clarke as Ed White has the most screen time, but even then, it’s mostly about reflecting Neil. There are good performances from Ciarán Hinds and Kyle Chandler, but they simply aren’t on screen long enough to make much of an impression. Pablo Schreiber presumably came on board on the proviso he got the lead in the sequel. Patrick Fugit fares better, but his fellow once-child-actor actor Lukas Haas has the short straw of the Apollo 11 astronauts as Ed Mitchell. Corey Stoll makes the impact needed as Buzz Aldrin, though, around just long enough to establish that Armstrong thinks he’s a dick (again, this makes an effective contrast with the camaraderie of the Kaufman film).

While it will probably get a Best Picture nom, I don’t think First Man is seriously going to trouble the Academy come Oscar night. As an officially stamped and approved space-race recreation, it’s pretty unimpeachable, but ironically on that score, it couldn’t exactly be called a propaganda tool for NASA; it’s too anti-mythologising. The last thing they’d want is a Moon movie in which the whole purpose is to underwhelm, in which walking on the Moon doesn’t really seem like all that.

To which end, I almost think Chazelle could have gone further. What if he hadn’t even showed Armstrong getting there, and just had the whole thing playing on his face? His interview for the Gemini programme could have been replayed, where he detours into a fascinating ramble about the philosophical importance of going into space being more important than mere exploration, and how it “allows us to see things. That maybe we should have seen a long time ago“.

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