First Man (2018)
One giant leap…
Damien Chazelle’s account of one of the great American accomplishments of the 20th century is real, raw, and powerful.
Starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, and Corey Stoll
Released by Universal Pictures
Written by Josh Singer
Directed by Damien Chazelle
America has always excelled at worshiping its greatest heroes, but the problem that often comes from our most laudable citizens is one of representing their humanity.
We can easily get caught up in the romantic aspects of their accomplishments, sometimes more content with the idea of looking up at their statues — tall, bronze, stoic, and lifeless — instead of the real idea of sitting across from them over a quiet table, and interacting with them while they have blood running through their veins and vibrations moving through their vocal cords. One of the absolutely best attributes of First Man is that it eschews some of the more expected trappings of American hero worship, instead focusing on the actual human being, whose accomplishments are depicted in equal measure with foibles and faults.
Some members of the movie-going public, it seems, don’t want realistic representations of their heroes that actually lived. Instead, rather than see an honest depiction of all the complexity that someone at the forefront of one of our nation’s defining accomplishments would obviously have, they apparently just want the flag to be raised, the cannons to be fired, and the band to strike up “The Stars & Stripes Forever” loud enough to drown out the sounds of our hero quietly sobbing over the death of his young daughter alone in a side bedroom.
Why acknowledge real humanity when an image of a hero saluting a flag is so much warmer and fuzzier?
Focusing on the most eventful period in the career of pilot and astronaut Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling), First Man is an unflinching look at the very difficult circumstances and trials that led to his selection as the commander of Apollo 11, the first mission that actually landed on the surface of the moon. Beginning with the terrible tragedy of the death of his young daughter Karen when the girl was only two years old, the film examines how Armstrong’s work was both something he uniquely excelled at, while also illustrating it as something he could escape to when his family life became difficult to bear.
The movie takes us through Armstrong’s time as a test pilot, his selection as one of the “New Nine” of the astronaut corps for NASA’s Gemini program, how the cost of blood and treasure in the pursuit of the moon took a toll on many of the men selected to take us there, and ultimately Armstrong’s selection as the man who would first set foot on the lunar surface. Perhaps more importantly, though, is the further context Chazelle gives to a man who found solace in the danger of his work over facing some very domestic difficulties. Claire Foy turns in an equally powerful performance to Gosling’s as Neil’s wife Jan, but the story also shows how it may have been difficult for her to be there for a husband who was often very willfully distant.
If anything, an artistic work like First Man likely does more service to the legend of Neil Armstrong than a vapid piece of more typical cinematic hero worship. By giving us a far more holistic look at the man as opposed to focusing strictly on his signature accomplishment, Chazelle’s film acknowledges the work of thousands — at every possible level of NASA — that ultimately allowed Armstrong to take that first, small step. It also embraces the political difficulties faced by the space program through the Vietnam War, as some American citizens vocally expressed bewilderment at the idea of spending so much in dollars and lives to fly around in space, when soldiers were dying in jungles on the other side of the planet that the astronauts were training to temporarily escape.
The desire to give such a full picture of the very real complexity at the heart of both Armstrong specifically and the wider American space program is what makes First Man feel so raw and honest. As a movie, it takes some historical liberties, but it’s also unflinching in the face of representing the real difficulties faced by both the astronauts themselves, and the country as a whole. Excellent supporting performances by actors Jason Clarke as Ed White, Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, and Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton also all add to the general feeling of humanistic realism that the movie aims for.
A particular focus on Armstrong’s friendship with White makes for some substantial emotional punctuation, especially during the film’s ominous depiction of the fire in the Apollo 1 command module in January, 1967, which killed White along with fellow astronauts Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee. In addition to illustrating the loss of one of Armstrong’s personal friends, it also helped establish the stakes for the space program and the country: as NASA scrambled to make sure such an event never happened again, the nation asked more vigorously whether or not the effort was worth it: just as it undoubtedly actually happened.
First Man is that rare piece of hero worship that does not come off, at all, as propagandic. Some people may think that this tone and focus somehow takes away from the vision of Armstrong as one of America’s greatest heroes or the larger accomplishments of the American space program, but it instead totally reinforces those perspectives: the astronauts endured extreme emotional stress in the single most unforgiving environment a human being could ever be placed in. Armstrong himself was a man who sacrificed stability in his family life and lost friends to see what he saw as a noble goal through to completion, all while trying to avoid celebrity and sing the praises of the thousands of people who made it possible for him to stand on the surface of the moon.
Self-sacrifice? Modesty? Enduring loss in the face of adversity? As someone who spends an inordinate amount of time studying both real and fictional heroes, he sure sounds like one of the greatest that ever lived, to me.