As you may or may not remember, the hugely anticipated release of Oscar-winner Damian Chazzele’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 neverending 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 money shot of the American Flag penetrating the virgin moon crust. Chazzele, Gosling, and the film were decried as pushing a non-patriotic telling of America’s finest achievement and branded sjw scum.
Of course, and not like those 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 worse First Man is not about the space race; it’s not about the American glory nor ingenuity that would have been gushing from this movie if damn near anyone else had made it.
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 and 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 character 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 (Claire de Foy), these are frozen daggers that slice off bits and pieces with every mindless swing. Armstrong is an abject professional; his singular dream of touching the night sky is a magically endearing vision, but no man is built to withstand the cost of achieving such a dream. Ryan Gosling is known for playing characters whose slick tongues are matched only by a charismatically carved exterior, but in one of his best performances to date, Gosling smartly rejects that stile in exchange for an unnervingly withdrawn pensiveness.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 cold dismay that permeates the Armstrong household threatens at times to strip First Man unnecessarily bare as it loses sight of what that cost is for, it is thanks to Damian Chizelle’s masterful direction that the film is able to inject the hope and intimacy needed just as much for a story about whistful space travel as it is for a story of personal tragedy. The slight wobble of vivid, greyed close-ups is scored with a magnificent lullaby of awe (Justin Hurwitz who worked on Chizelle’s previous two films creates the best score of any movie this year) which perfectly places the travails of the Armstrongs in context and builds a movie that is stifling in the way it breaks your heart just as much it takes your breath away when it puts you on the front lines in the pursuit of something bigger.
Unfortunately, the thing that holds First Man from matching its revolutionary ambitions with equally grandiose quality is a frustrating lack of understanding concerning with 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 lacks an understanding of 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 what the sacrifice being made is for.
Of course, it’s unfair to characterize First Man’s struggle with comprehending the goal of space travel as a unique fallacy. Not just in 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 though, First Man serves as an absorbently 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.