First Man has The Right Stuff

I should begin by making it clear that when I like something, I tend to really like something. I don’t have a ton of free time to give away, so it’s my experience that experiences or hobbies that I feel middling interest in often find themselves cut out completely. This goes for music, podcasts, and movies as much as anything else.

All that to say, directors play a large role in my connectivity to films. Sure, I get excited for the new Marvel or Star Wars films, too, but mostly because of the content; when it comes to directors that I love, the focus of the film is of secondary importance. That list is short for me, mostly consisting of Wes Anderson, Christopher Nolan, and, most recently Damien Chazelle, director of Whiplash, La La Land and now, First Man, which tells the story of Neil Armstrong and his fight to get to the moon.

Chazelle, who recently became the youngest person to ever win an Oscar for Best Director at just 32 years old, has already shown himself to be a master technician, and stands with the aforementioned directors, and others like them, who seem to always excel in the creation of the film, even if the sum of the parts doesn’t always add up. Fortunately for Chazelle, that hasn’t happened to him yet, as Last Man stands up both in terms of its technical prowess and storytelling, which focuses not necessarily on the Space Race or the politics of America in the 1960’s, so much as it does–like Whiplash and La La Land before it–on the obsession of its protagonist and the impact that has on those around him. So while Last Man is cognizant of its surroundings–the politics, the cost of errors, both in money and lives–the film is full entrenched in the mind and experiences of Gosling’s Armstrong, whom the actor portrays as focused but flawed, driven but disconnected from his emotions.

The film’s emotional framing device is the early death of Armstrong’s daughter, Karen, who dies of cancer at two-years-old just minutes into the film, allowing Chazelle and writer Josh Singer to insert the thematic ideas of how loss impacts Armstrong and the astronaut’s inability to express himself emotionally. Gosling’s performance, then, is muted and almost seems passive at times, but fits the reality of the character as the film presents it. This leaves the emotional weight to be carried by Claire Foy, tremendous as Janet Armstrong, who struggles both to keep her life together at home and with the regular and terrifying reminder that one of these days her husband may not come home. The repeated refrain of death is one that the film handles adeptly, as its drum beat repetition serves as a reminder both to the characters and the audience that the cost is extremely high.

Much has been made of the film’s perceived anti-American stance, and people who have not seen the movie, from friends of mine on Facebook to the President of the United States have spoken out against the movie because of what they’ve been told. The problem is that these people, who misinterpreted a story about the film, are wrong about the movie and its treatment of America as hero. While it is true that the planting of the American flag on the moon is not explicitly depicted on-screen, the flag is shown twice in rare wide shots of Tranquility Base, and the Stars and Stripes are all over the film’s scenes, from a heroic shot of Armstrong’s son hoisting the flag outside of the family’s Houston house to the flags literally in every shot of the astronauts in uniform or in spacesuits, the image is an indelible one in the film. Furthermore, while the script doesn’t go out of its way to make political statements about the Soviet Union, the mission is clear: NASA has to beat the Soviets to the moon, and it is embarrassed by its being beaten, time after time, by the Soviet space expeditions. The reason this is not hammered home even more throughout is also pretty clear: this is a film about Armstrong and his obsession to reach his goal, which has little to do with the Space Race and everything to do with his own desires. The film is called First Man, after all, and time and time again reminds the viewer that this is Armstrong’s story, not the history of the Space Race or of NASA (if that historical perceptive is of importance to you, try Tom Hanks and Ron Howard’s HBO docuseries From the Earth to the Moon).

The movie is also a technical marvel. Chazelle and DP Linus Sandgren, who won the Oscar for shooting La La Land, make the purposeful choice to double down on the claustrophobic nature of the film by shooting much of the movie in close-up on its actors, to the point where Gosling, Foy and others rarely even have their full heads on-screen throughout most of the shots. While this doubles as a metaphor for the tightness of the flight capsules the astronauts flew to space in, Sandgren’s camera work, and the snappy nature of Whiplash Oscar-winner’s Tom Cross’ editing, especially during the scenes in space, continues to make the point that the film is Armstrong’s, and that the outside forces, other than space itself, matter very little. Furthermore, the exactness of how the rockets worked, how space would have impacted the camera, and the lack of sound are all part of the decisions Chazelle makes, leading to a film that is more internalized than anything else.

This is explicitly stated in the lead-up to Armstrong leaving to prepare to leave on Apollo 11, where he worries himself with packing rather than spending time with his family. When Janet accosts him regarding his not saying goodbye to their boys, Neil’s response is that the “boys are asleep,” and whether it’s true or not isn’t all that important. His reply to his wife, who is clearly yearning for some emotional reaction from her husband, is damning–they might be asleep, but that he can’t even be bothered to wake them up anyway in light of where he’s heading says a great deal about the man. Yet there isn’t a cruelty to it, and Gosling’s muted temperament remains, but the violent anger of Janet’s retort forces action from Armstrong, who agrees to an uncomfortable Q&A session with his sons. Something about that, too, feels right, as Chazelle has already shown the best way to get information out of Armstrong is to ask him direct questions, and that even then his replies are short. When his eldest finally speaks aloud the question nobody really wants to ask–“Is there a chance you might not come back?”–Armstrong’s simple “Yes” feels equal parts agonizing and potentially catastrophic.

The final piece of the puzzle here is the score, a masterful piece of work by Oscar-winner Justin Hurwitz, who won for both score and original song for La La Land, that adds to the tension of the film. Somehow, even though I knew that there was a happy ending for Armstrong coming, Hurwitz’s musical choices, including the use of a theremin, supposedly a favorite of Armstrong’s, ratcheted up not only the claustrophobia of various scenes, but also never succumb to tropes of action sequences. In fact, in places where a more traditional film might have swelled, Hurwitz’s score goes minimal, all the while remaining a pivotal part of the film’s overall impact.

The film isn’t perfect by any means, however, and one of its weakest portions might be that Armstrong was who he was. There doesn’t seem to be as much as a single heroic bone in Armstrong’s body, but instead he comes across as an intellectual who is obsessed with the task, all the while being beaten down by the tragedy of his choice to get involved with NASA in the first place. And while the decision to start the film in 1961 allows for the death of Karen to play a major role in his life and showcase Armstrong’s emotional stoicism, it does force the rush through some of the events, such as skipping through much of the Apollo missions after the test failure of Apollo 1, and relying on dialogue to catch the viewer up on that. Granted, the movie is already push 2 1/2 hours, but more insight onto some of that might have been enlightening; but the centralizing of Armstrong as the story’s focus also argues against some of that, too. Some of the shots, while intentional and effective in their desire to cause a sense of disorientation, sometimes come across as little too artsy and confusing, although to the credit of Sandgren, Cross and Chazelle, they never allow those shots to linger for too long. And while the emotionalism of the film is sometimes lost by having to spend most of its time with Neil, the core feelings of loss and an inability to cope with or express emotions, are never lost.

While Chazelle’s filmography is short (other than Whiplash and La La Land, his directing credits include the Whiplash short that led to the full length film and Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a super-indie that seems to have informed some of La La Land), all of his films have been incredibly well made and all convey the connective tissue of what being driven can do to people, whether that be taking people you love away or causing your dreams to come crash down before your eyes. In a way, Chazelle has gotten a little more optimistic as he’s gone along, as his endings, which are always spectacular and moving, have gotten sunnier, even if they aren’t flat-out living the “everything is going to be alright” mantra. It may be that First Man is Chazelle’s weakest output so far, but given the high bar he set for himself–he’s already been nominated for two screenplay Oscars, seen both of his films nominated for Best Picture and won the Best Director prize–this might not even be saying that much. Even more importantly, not only is the backlash against the film as anti-American not true, it actually flies in the face of how much the film goes out of its way to remind you what America accomplished (a French woman interviewed on TV after the landing says she knew she could trust the Americans to do the job). But ultimately this is the story of a man who accomplished what he set out to do, and that although it came with a cost, he is finally able to rest and acknowledge his accomplishment, one that he feels is very much his to relish.

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