As you may or may not remember, the hugely anticipated release of Oscar-winner Damian Chazelle’s new film First Man, the Neil Armstrong biopic starring Ryan Gosling, was overshadowed upon its release by a petty culture war of sorts. I know, the never-ending barrage of combative news makes it difficult to recall any specific controversy (especially the ones that are the product of the tantrum-prone right) but for those who forgot, First Man came under scorched-earth attacks from the alt-right aghast that the film reportedly did not feature the planting of the American flag (and, I believe, due to a suspect lack of bald eagles wielding dual machine guns while swooping over the lunar surface). Chazelle, Gosling, and the film were decried as pushing an unpatriotic telling of America’s finest achievement and branded sjw scum.
Obviously, and not like most on the right would care anymore, there was a very conscientious vision driving the film’s presentation of its story and that vision was not just to subvert the minds of our vulnerable children with communist propaganda. No, for better and for worse First Man is not about the space race; it is not about the American glory nor ingenuity that would have been gushing from this movie if it had been made 20 years ago.
It is about Neil Armstrong.
It is about Neil Armstrong the broken father, not the golden-haired family man. It is about Neil Armstrong the soldier, not the astronaut. It is about Neil Armstrong the human, not the legend. When we gaze up in awe at our heroes, tracking their trials, tribulations and world-altering accomplishments, universally we neglect to see these people for who they are: people. That’s what makes First Man’s take on its protagonist so unique. The humanity behind its hero is not hidden or blithely exaggerated, it is the central takeaway of the film.
Starting with the death of Armstrong’s young daughter, each fallen friend and near-fatal catastrophe for Armstrong is not just some new obstacle to leap over and grow from. To him and his equally damaged wife Janet (a phenomenal Claire de Foy), these are frozen daggers that slice off bits and pieces of their humanity with every mindless swing. Armstrong is an abject professional; his singular dream of touching the night sky is magically endearing, but no man is built to withstand the cost of achieving such a vision. Ryan Gosling is known for playing characters whose slick tongues are matched only by their charismatically carved exterior, but in one of his best performances to date, Gosling smartly rejects that style in exchange for an unnervingly withdrawn pensiveness. The limited lines Armstrong does get are spoken with a frigid mid-western draw–his stoic demeanor betraying just how far adrift he is from the normalcy we expect him to inhabit. Because as much as we may try to look away, the truth remains: there is a human cost to space travel, just as there is a human cost to anything with a prize so mighty and a danger so great. The story of First Man is not a story about that prize; it is about that cost.
Yet while the frigid dismay that permeates the Armstrong household threatens at times to strip First Man unnecessarily bare, it is thanks to Damien Chazelle’s masterful direction that the film is able to inject the hope and intimacy needed for such a personal story. The slight wobble of vivid, greyed close-ups is scored with a magnificent lullaby of awe (Justin Hurwitz who worked on Chazelle’s previous two films writes the best score of any movie this year), creating a mesmerizing atmosphere that perfectly places the travails of the Armstrongs in context and builds a movie that is as stifling in its portrayal of heartbreak as it is breathtaking in its portrayal of the search for something bigger.
On the flip side though, what holds First Man from matching its revolutionary ambitions with equally grandiose quality is a frustrating lack of understanding concerning what that “something bigger” is. The script, by the writer of Spotlight and The Post (Josh Singer), gives remarkable insight into the personal cost of success, yet it is unable to comprehend what that cost is for. The practical and existential meaning behind our race to the moon (or maybe lack thereof) are lost on Singer, and it becomes increasingly difficult as the movie goes on to reconcile Armstrong’s unshakeable drive with the indomitable tragedy that surrounds him when we don’t know the purpose of his sacrifices.
Of course, it’s unfair to characterize First Man’s struggle with comprehending the goal of space travel as a unique failing. Beyond movies and popular culture, this question has dogged our missions to space from the launch of Sputnik and continues to confound us to this very day. Until we figure it out though, First Man serves as an exorbitantly stark reminder that as long as people’s lives are on the line, the cost of success is more than just zeroes and media narratives.