Will all the wackos who believe the moon landing of Apollo 11 in July 1969 never happened, but was fabricated in a studio, calm down after seeing the portrayal of the touchdown on the moon and the first human steps taken on it, in Damien Chazelle’s new film, “First Man”? Of course not. The very opposite, actually. This is a movie, after all, in which an actor, Ryan Gosling, plays Neil Armstrong, who spoke the iconic sentence, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” So, if the event can be reconstructed in a movie studio, it could just as easily have been faked.
I don’t know whether this accounts for the tone chosen by the director to tell the story of the first person to tread on the moon. In any event, it isn’t the heroic, patriotic cinematic spectacle we might have been expecting. In many ways it’s a paradoxical film that fuses technology, of the aviation and space variety, with sentimentality – not an easy combination to pull off. Moreover, it’s served up in a casing of dry emotion, deriving from the character of the protagonist. According to the film, at least, he wasn’t able to express emotions. As the plot progresses, and his involvement in the project intensifies, that difficulty insulates him increasingly within himself and distances him from his wife and children.
From the outset, the focus is entirely on Neil Armstrong. It’s 1961. Armstrong is a NASA test pilot who encounters trouble and is extricated from it, in a long scene presented mostly as Armstrong experiences it. He occasionally communicates with the crew on the ground, but the opening sequence is primarily a visual blast, augmented by tremendous noise (more on the film’s use of noise later).
What probably brought this to mind is my sense that the opening sequence parallels the first scene in Chazelle’s previous film, “La La Land,” where one long shot fashions a musical segment set during a Los Angeles traffic jam. The difference is that the opening of “La La Land” was packed with people, whereas “First Man” focuses on one individual, setting the stage for everything that follows. That’s surprising, as the event reenacted in the film swept all of America, which by then was fed up with the vast spending on the space program. The movie even includes a performance of Gil Scott-Heron’s protest song, “Whitey on the Moon.” In fact, the whole world was following it (the television broadcast of the landing was, up until then, the most-viewed mass event ever).
But what interests Chazelle is not the collectivity, but the individual who experienced the event on which the whole film is centered. Perhaps the most extreme example of this approach is the director’s decision not to show one of the most memorable moments of Armstrong’s short sojourn on the moon – his planting of the American flag in its soil – a lacuna that has infuriated many viewers of the film. Though others dismissed such anger, it’s not a trivial oversight in the context of this picture (in which American flags are in fact on view), the more so because Chazelle replaces the famous patriotic gesture with one that’s related to Armstrong’s personal family story. Through his helmet we even see, though with difficulty, not entirely sure we’re seeing right, what seems to be a tear flowing from Armstrong’s eye as he makes that gesture. If it actually happened, wouldn’t it have been worth a headline at the time: Neil Armstrong crying on the moon?
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I appreciate what Chazelle has tried to do in “First Man,” though I didn’t always find the 142-minute film an easy viewing experience. There are many drily factual scenes about how a spacecraft is launched and about astronauts’ training; but as one who’s technologically challenged, many of the terms and procedures passed me by and proved somewhat wearisome. In addition, with the focus being almost exclusively on Armstrong, the other mission members aren’t sufficiently developed and remain marginal figures. The only exception is Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong’s partner on the voyage, who is depicted as a rather vulgar chatterbox. Even an appalling accident, in which several of Armstrong’s friends are killed, is presented in a low-key manner, reflecting his restrained reaction to the disaster. Clearly he mourns for them, though that will not deter him from executing the mission for which he has been chosen.
Mourning plays a major role in the film. According to “First Man,” Armstrong never got over the death of his 2-year-old daughter, Karen, from cancer, and didn’t know how to cope with his mourning. This plot element drives the picture’s parallel narrative, which portrays the marital difficulties experienced by Armstrong’s wife, Janet (an excellent performance by the British actress Claire Foy). She simultaneously projects resilience and – what the film needs – emotion. According to the film, Armstrong is impelled by his pining for his daughter, and this dovetails with the determination-cum-obedience that characterizes him.
Armstrong as depicted in “First Man” is extremely insular. Ryan Gosling lends himself fully to this insularity, in part through a laconic form of speech, so much so that it comes as a surprise that on the moon he utters an iconic sentence of more than two words.
Effects of sound
In contrast to heroic pyrotechnics, the movie shows the hardship and suffering that the astronauts undergo in training and in the cramped command module of the spacecraft ahead of the fiery liftoff, followed by separation from the Saturn launch rocket. The film is replete with scenes showing this process, which is repeated somewhat oppressively, though here Chazelle does something interesting with the soundtrack. He shifts between earsplitting noise, accompanied by music – the soundwaves actually shook my seat (reminding me of the failed Sensurround system developed in the 1970s, in which devices were installed under the seats in movie theaters to make them shake during scenes involving explosions or natural disasters, notably in the 1978 disaster movie “Earthquake”) and sudden quiet, when the soundtrack itself seems to have gone silent. This lends the film a rhythm of its own, recalling again that until now Chazelle has made musical films: He uses the flight sequences like numbers in a musical.
Silence also plays a part in the lovely scene in which Armstrong and Janet meet for the first time after his return from the moon mission, when it’s clear to us that he will never be able to convey to anyone else the essence of the experience he underwent. The film’s complex music was composed by Justin Hurwitz, who won two Oscars for his work in “La La Land.”
In its dominant theme of portraying a man who does not abandon his dream, destiny and vision, even at the price of loneliness, “First Man” connects with Chazelle’s previous two films, “Whiplash” and “La La Land.” Such were the young jazzman whose drums resonate with blood and sweat in “Whiplash,” and the jazzman who mourns the loss of his art in “La La Land,” and such, too, is Neil Armstrong in Chazelle’s new movie. On top of this, the film is set in the 1960s, with Armstrong representing a masculine model of that time, when the role division between men and women was sharp and smooth (Janet is a typical housewife of the period).
With its spotlight firmly on Armstrong’s determination and vision, “First Man” refrains almost completely from providing a historical context. The Vietnam War and the protest movement are mentioned, as is the fact that the space program was motivated primarily by America’s competition with the Soviet Union, as U.S. President John F. Kennedy noted in his well-known speech about the importance of the program in the Cold War – an excerpt from which appears at the end of the picture. But all that is present only at the far margins of the consciousness of the person who is at the center of the film.
As I noted, “First Man” does not make for easy viewing, and at times, while watching it, I asked myself whether it was worth the effort. After all, the protagonist is a person remote from us, and that distance is also manifested in the fact that there are many scenes in which we don’t see Gosling through the spacesuit he wears – only his face is visible, and especially his eyes, on which Chazelle repeatedly focuses in close-ups. Ultimately, though, the film is a demanding but praiseworthy experience. Its peak – the moon landing and Armstrong’s moonwalk – possess a truly magical quality that transmits vividly the sense of alienation fomented by arriving at a place where no human being had ever been before.