11 years ago, astronaut Lisa Nowak bought some supplies, supposedly strapped on a diaper (she denies the diaper) and drove across multiple states to kidnap and kill the other girlfriend of her secret lover who was not her husband. Beyond the salacious nature of the sordid scandal, the country was briefly obsessed with the mental health of our astronauts; what kind of thrill-seeking adrenaline junky wants to leave their family for weeks or months at a time just to go up into space? In First Man, Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) filters this question through the life and masculinity of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling).
Although rarely mentioned, the early space program was inundated with risk and death. Pilots died in aircraft tests as controls died, the equipment exploded, or some other disaster befell our national heroes. Chazelle opens First Man by acknowledging the danger right from the first near death scene where Neil flies a small aircraft high into the sky only to almost bounce off the atmosphere on his return and be flung into the deep unknown. We learn later that Neil was surrounded by death even before the movie began. His colleague pilots died years before, and then he had to suffer through his daughter’s losing battle with cancer. With an inability to process grief, First Man asks whether Neil is really exploring space in the interest of exploring space or if he is doing it to escape from his own grief?
This version of Neil Armstrong comes from the mold of that classically stoic 1950s/1960s career man emotionally distant from his family but in constant emotional turmoil (as symbolized by Chazelle’s incessant use of Shakycam to show the emotions that MAGA-era masculinity couldn’t show). To be fair, feigning stoicism and emotional distance is the only way anybody could withstand the constant threat of death for decades just so they could be the first man on the moon. This deconstruction of the family man fits in with all of these the oh-so-modern interrogations of masculinity that seek to critique even as they admire the results and oh my god, can’t we just get into space?
When Chazelle is exploring Armstrong’s emotional turmoil on the ground, the movie is a rote bag of cliches about masculinity where the man can’t express himself forcing his concerned wife to force him to act like a human for her own sanity. Though Chazelle thinks he’s deconstructing the myth of the heroic male, he’s really selling us the same old story we’ve been hearing for the better part of two decades. Housewives had it tough, men get to accomplish things, and oh just shoot me. This nimby pimby emotion is made all the worse by Chazelle’s tragic dependence on using extreme closeups and shakycam (sometimes in the same shot) to show any emotion – joy, grief, rage, worry, fear, etc – felt by any character. These overbearing crutches become all the worse when seen in IMAX where even the most microscopic shakes are enough to move the frame by feet. This trite visual style is enough to make me want to feel nothing at all.
It’s only when we get to the sky that First Man finally comes alive as the most harrowing and stressful depiction of manning experimental flying machines while you’re battling G-forces strong enough to make you pass out in minutes. Although Chazelle is also dependent on shakycam here, at least he is using the shakes effectively. Fortunately, these disappear when Armstrong finally gets to the moon. Once Chazelle finally gets to our final destination, the frame expands into a giant filmed-on-IMAX frame (only in IMAX theaters) and turns into the grief-stricken outtake from Daft Punk’s Electroma that it was straining to be, complete with a gold plated helmet.
Unfortunately, these few minutes of grandiose filmmaking are stuck in a 140-minute movie of men doing manly things and making the world progress while women worry and fret. But it’s not just gender politics that make First Man all MAGA. It’s the actual politics. Because Glenn Kenny opined that the political arguments against First Man only take into account what First Man is not about, let’s talk a bit about what Damien Chazelle includes and excludes.
Chazelle does include a bit about the space race and how our goal was to beat Russia and to explore the moon because it was a challenge. He does not include how the space race was also an attempt to weaken Russia by getting them to spend more money on frivolous dick waving. The ultimate message: America was great and the space race brought us all together.
The American flag is all over this damned movie. It’s hanging on houses, it’s on spacesuits, it’s in the background like an omenous figure. But, Chazelle omits the planting of the American flag on the moon. The ultimate message: America is great, but this movie is about Neil Armstrong’s emotions.
He does include white men doing important things while their white housewives emotionally stress out back home. He does not include strong black characters or professional female characters (beyond a couple of journalist women). The Hidden Figures ladies remain hidden in Chazelle’s world. The message: White men accomplish things; women stay home and cry.
Chazelle does have one strong black voice: a black protester singing about inner city poverty with the repeated line “But whitey’s on the moon.” Chazelle does not include actual living conditions of inner city poverty. Nor does he include institutionalized racism. Nor does he include black workers at NASA. The message: white professionals accomplish things; black people are whiners who want to impede projects.
Chazelle does include anti-war protests but presents them as background noise to the space race. LBJ was right in both advancing our Vietnam war and continuing the space race.
So, why make First Man in the era of Donald Trump? In a political atmosphere where feminist women are feeling left out, minorities are systemically removed from many important conversations, and the slogan “Make America Great Again” simultaneously refers to the prosperous 1950s/1960s and the racial/gender/sexual politics that oppressed the undersirables, Chazelle makes a movie that appeals precisely to that crowd. It would be one thing if this were a great movie. But it’s not. This is product exploring well-worn territory using exhausted filming techniques. Neither Chazelle nor screenwriter Josh Singer are bringing anything new to the table. This is a terminally snoozy affair about heroic institutions in America, the third such film from Singer (Spotlight, The Post).