Given the semi-minor political controversy surrounding the film’s supposed anti-American undertones, we were very surprised that First Man turned out to be one of the more socially conservative films we’ve seen in a long time. Director Damien Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling, continuing on the success of their collaboration in La La Land, execute the same feat in a different genre with their second film. If La La Land gave us the most classic of classic Hollywood musicals rendered in a modern way, First Man is akin to a lot of the Great Man in History hagiographies Hollywood is known for; stories of stoic, square-jawed, nearly always white American men who make history through grit and silent – always silent – determination. There’s a deeply cynical part of us that wonders if a lot of the critical praise of this film has more to do with a yearning for that kind of figure in American life at a time when our public figures and pedestal-dwellers consistently reveal themselves to be disappointing and problematic.
But let’s say this before we get too far into that: First Man is a very good film executed in an engrossing way, telling a classic story about men and women making history and trying to hold themselves together at the same time, with fantastic performances from leads Gosling and Claire Foy, as Neil and Janet Armstrong. As a troubled married couple, they are simply electric together. The scenes of Foy pleading and imploring Gosling (deliberately underplaying to a nearly infuriating extent) to connect with her on some level and to understand her perspective just a little were so powerful and so heavy with yearning that it almost felt like you had accidentally stumbled into some couple’s extremely private argument and can’t figure out a way to exit the room gracefully.
This you-are-there sense, which permeates the entire film and largely serves as its entire point (since this topic is fairly well-trod cinematic ground, the film’s style, like La La Land‘s, is its raison d’être) is rendered in extreme shaky cam, grainy, period-defining film and lighting, and utterly devastating sound design. The shaky cam and cinema verite-style cinematography are wonderfully effective in both the domestic scenes and the mission-based scenes, but it’s the sound during the missions that truly sells the film as its own unique experience. Chazelle seems determined to strip the actual work of developing manned space flight of any romanticism, depicting the missions as hellish affairs akin to riding a series of controlled explosions. There are times when the flashing images and ear-pounding sounds are nearly overwhelming and it’s to Chazelle’s credit that he sticks with these moments, letting them play out long enough for the audience to feel some sense of nausea and fear themselves. The very best scenes of the film occur during these missions and nothing in the film defines the heroism of the people involved better than showing just how scary and hard their work was. Unfortunately, the emotional component of the story wasn’t nearly as well developed or executed.
Make no mistake, the emotional aspect of the story is also a major point of it. While the film has all the trappings of a classic Great Man story, it also tries to explore the nuances of an emotionally distant man and the sacrifices made by him and his wife in order to allow him to become a legend. There is a point the film wants to make about men who keep their cards close to their chest, men who don’t display emotion readily and choose all their words carefully. Unfortunately, that point comes off retrograde and muddily expressed; contradicting itself at times.
The film gestures toward Janet’s emotional landscape but never lets us see her traverse it, if that makes any sense. It tips its hat toward the ideas that she is unhappy in her life, emotionally unfulfilled in her marriage, and mourning a dead child, but it literally never lets her truly explore those emotions. It barely lets her even portray them. There are times when Janet’s perspective is clearly signaled in the story but not actually shown. To put that in more concrete terms, the film goes to great lengths to underline just how stressful her life is as the wife of an astronaut and just how horrifying it can be for her to have to listen to her husband’s missions unfold in real time. Then, inexplicably, fails to cut away to her when certain missions hit a snag, go on too long, or swerve too close to disaster. We only see her long after she’s had time to process certain events, even though the tremendous difficulty she faces doing that processing is literally the most important part of her character.
Chazelle has this tendency to not depict the character’s most emotional moments or to depict them without commentary or context. There is a climactic emotional moment near the end of the film which we will not spoil here. Suffice it to say it was presented in such a manner as to depict Armstrong as the mid-Century ideal of the stoic, silent, American hero. That it happened in total solitude, as far away from his family as humanly possible; farther indeed than any man has been from his family, didn’t seem poignant to us. It seemed selfish and punishing, in the context of the story. The problem is, after two-plus hours of watching Armstrong keep everything in check, this moment of release is presented as something beautiful and touching. There’s no other sense or feeling attached to it. That’s the filmmakers choice and we suspect how one views the film will hinge largely on whether you think that moment should have had more nuance to it. In other words, it comes down to whether you’re in the mood for a Gary Cooper-like hero who keeps all his emotions in check (and far away from the people who love him) or whether you think the time for such notions of masculinity have passed. If Armstrong was unknowable for a biographer or unreachable by his own family, we would think a film exploring such ideas would have something to say about them. Instead, it’s presented in a purely, reverently heroic manner.
Neil Armstrong and the men of the space program truly were heroic; not just in their bravery, but in their persistence. When First Man sticks to these ideas, it’s stirring and engrossing. When it tries to put them in the context of mid-20th Century American masculinity ideals, it fails to truly ask any questions or come to any conclusions other than the obvious ones.