Skip to main content

We need to fail. We need to fail down here so we don't fail up there.

First Man
(2018)

I was ambivalent about the need for First Man. The space race movie had already been made in The Right Stuff, and couldn’t possibly be bettered, and the “tribulations in space” movie had been one of the better Ron Howard pictures (still only solid, rather than great, though). Was another Hollywood production promulgating the official history of NASA needed? Probably not, as there's nothing very new here on that score, but what impresses about First Man is rather the perversely unglorifying approach it takes – which isn't to say it’s anything other than in awe of the risks taken by the risk takers – resulting in a piece that's almost the opposite of Philip Kaufman's film in scope, scale and design, despite sharing some of its iconography; it could even be seen as an anti-epic.


Such a viewpoint isn't about the feats featured, since both Damien Chazelle and Kaufman take pains to emphasise the death-defying career choice of these fledgling astronauts in what are essentially coffins strapped onto rockets (or boys' balsa wood model kits, as Claire Foy's Janet Armstrong suggests at one point, during a not-unmotivated or unreasonable tirade against the absurdity of the enterprise). Rather, it's about the man at the centre of them. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is the very definition of interior, buttoned-down and self-controlled. Even by Gosling's career standards, this is a doozy for that impassive gaze. And then some. What's going on in Armstrong's head? Is he unreadable, a smorgasbord of unexpressed emotions? I didn't find this uncommunicative pose distancing, perhaps because I never got the sense from Gosling's performance that Armstrong was unfeeling or lacking in emotional range; rather, his comfort zone was to respond with precision and collectedness or not all. Fine for his work, problematic when it came to retreating from the stresses of dealing with his domestic world. 


Armstrong is implacable and unmoved as is for the much of the time; he'll rather immediately leave the family home than have a conversation with his wife over what happened at work that day, which just happened to be a near fatality for him, and has to be duly screamed at before he will sit the kids down and tell them he may not be coming back from the Moon, which amusingly takes on something closer to the form of reporters quizzing him at a press conference. In direct contrast, Janet is in a constant struggle to remain composed. As much as Gosling adopts Armstrong's inscrutability, Foy wears Janet's strain all over her face. It's a remarkable performance, and the sympathy is with her throughout. 


I'm not sure how authentic the trauma of the loss of daughter Karen was to Armstrong's ongoing motivation; I've seen it suggested it had little bearing on his devotion to his work, although the scene in which he shuts down a question probing precisely that point is great writing and acting; "I think it would be unreasonable to assume that it wouldn’t have some effect". Regardless, it's entirely believable that the man we see here would have chosen never to discuss the subject, and when broached, that he'd have retreated into his own inaccessible pain. That said, it's still a pat Hollywood arc as presented, the epic journey grounded in personal catharsis as Armstrong throws her bracelet onto the lunar surface (of which, there's no evidence, but the author of the biography on which this is based, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R Hansen, nursed it as a pet theory). 


Happier familial scenes find the director apparently at a loss over how to proceed, so falling back on referencing others; the autumnal, lens-flared, handheld of domestic bliss has apparently fallen straight out of The Tree of Life. When it comes to the world of men doing manly things, Chazelle has no such caution; yes, the visual cues in the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle test remind one of Sam Shepard's Chuck Yaeger staggering out of the desert following a crash in The Right Stuff, yet it doesn’t feel an unearned or invalid lift.


Chazelle's story essentially picks up where The Right Stuff left off with the Mercury programme, the common astronaut to both movies being Gus Grissom (there played by the eminent Fred Ward, here by Shea Whigham), about whom there are even conspiracy theories (the idea that he his death was actually murder, a consequence of his criticism of the Apollo programme; he didn't believe there was much chance of it making the Moon on schedule). We also have common tropes to both movies; the team learning the ropes/worrying about the potentialities; the wives' lives; the mission going wrong and subsequent investigation (in The Right Stuff there's the hatch of the Liberty Bell 7 blowing, resulting in its loss). 


But there's no progressive sense of achievement or triumphalism to First Man. Janet isn't merely the obediently supporting wife, and the space flights aren't portrayed as stunning, poetic experiences, bar the odd snatched moment. Armstrong is engrossed in the work rather than family, but there's no victory in that, in obvious terms of satisfaction, which rather separates the picture from the sacrifice = achievement formula of Whiplash and La La Land. There, the ends justify the means as long as the ends are success; First Man is much more equivocal. Armstrong's motivation is never voiced as such. He's driven but not for outwardly-expressed motives, not for fame, not for the glory of being the first, or for lasting veneration. On that level at least, the movie represents a more mature, reflective piece of work for Chazelle.


Simply in terms of premise, Chazelle has set himself a very different task, and an uphill challenge; the movie is all in Neil's head – or in Janet's, who is unable to get into his head. This reticence in relation to one giant leap, the human achievement, seems to line up with the "Who is all this for?" of Gil Scott-Heron's Whitey on the Moon and the avoidance of focussing on the American flag. In the case of the latter, really, in context of the movie, it would have been very odd if it had, suggesting the complaints came from those who hadn't watched the film and had no clue about the context of the content. One might further infer apathy from the muted tone, towards an accomplishment where scepticism over its veracity simply won't go away, and indeed grows, the longer return visits are off the agenda (and in the Internet age, it's a debate in which those on either side of the lunar fence dig their heels in ever more voraciously).


One thing is abundantly clear from First Man; when he's got a clear idea about tackling a scene, Chazelle is an astonishingly proficient filmmaker. Perhaps the biggest problem here is that the picture peaks with the Gemini 8 mission to dock with the orbiting Agena target vehicle. It's a masterpiece of a sequence, utterly compelling even when you can't really get a fix on what is going on (so reflecting the astronauts' own experiences). It also perhaps gives us the clearest indication of how Armstrong ticks, as he tersely informs co-pilot David Scott (Christopher Abbot) that he hasn't got time for his distractions, his concentration focussed on the calculations necessary to adjust their trajectory for docking.


After this comes the fire that kills the Apollo 1 crew, again depicted with consummate diligence. I was less persuaded by the backend of the picture, however; even the scene in which Neil talks to his kids felt like a bit of a fudge (I mean, the chances he wouldn’t come back were fairly high on his previous space mission, surely). And there's little tension in the flight itself; even the lunar landing, avoiding a crater, is fairly sedate. It's almost as if, like the concentration on the flag point, the movie's about Armstrong getting there, rather than being there. Maybe not even that. If nothing else, it does, however, prove you can make a convincing Moon landing in a TV studio (or in a quarry, as the case may be). The other takeaway from this sequence is Justin Hurwitz's beautiful piece of scoring; it's curious that he's only worked with Chazelle thus far, as he must surely be in demand.


There’s another area where First Man distinguishes itself from The Right Stuff; Armstrong's fellow astronauts barely get a look in. Jason Clarke as Ed White has the most screen time, but even then, it's mostly about reflecting Neil. There are good performances from Ciarán Hinds and Kyle Chandler, but they simply aren't on screen long enough to make much of an impression. Pablo Schreiber presumably came on board on the proviso he got the lead in the sequel. Patrick Fugit fares better, but his fellow once-child-actor actor Lukas Haas has the short straw of the Apollo 11 astronauts as Ed Mitchell. Corey Stoll makes just the impact needed as Buzz Aldrin, though, just around long enough to establish that Armstrong thinks he's a dick (again, this makes an effective contrast with the camaraderie of the Kaufman film). 


While it will probably get a Best Picture nom, I don't think First Man is seriously going to trouble the Academy come Oscar night. As an officially stamped and approved space race recreation, it's pretty unimpeachable, but ironically on that score, it couldn't exactly be called a propaganda tool for NASA; it's too anti-mythologising. The last thing they'd want is a Moon movie in which the whole purpose is to underwhelm, in which walking on the Moon doesn't really seem like all that. To that end, I almost think Chazelle could have gone further. What if he hadn't even showed Armstrong getting there, and just had the whole thing playing on his face? His interview for the Gemini programme could have replayed, where he detours into a fascinating ramble about the philosophical importance of going into space being more important than mere exploration, and how it "allows us to see things. That maybe we should have seen a long time ago".



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode?

The Right Stuff (1983) (SPOILERS) While it certainly more than fulfils the function of a NASA-propaganda picture – as in, it affirms the legitimacy of their activities – The Right Stuff escapes the designation of rote testament reserved for Ron Howard’s later Apollo 13 . Partly because it has such a distinctive personality and attitude. Partly too because of the way it has found its through line, which isn’t so much the “wow” of the Space Race and those picked to be a part of it as it is the personification of that titular quality in someone who wasn’t even in the Mercury programme: Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shephard). I was captivated by The Right Stuff when I first saw it, and even now, with the benefit of knowing-NASA-better – not that the movie is exactly extolling its virtues from the rooftops anyway – I consider it something of a masterpiece, an interrogation of legends that both builds them and tears them down. The latter aspect doubtless not NASA approved.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

You’d be surprised how many intersectional planes of untethered consciousness exist.

Moon Knight (2022) (SPOILERS) Now, this is an interesting one. Not because it’s very good – Phase IV MCU? Hah! – but because it presents its angle on the “superhero” ethos in an almost entirely unexpurgated, unsoftened way. Here is a character explicitly formed through the procedures utilised by trauma-based mind control, who has developed alters – of which he has been, and some of which he remains, unaware – and undergone training/employment in the military and private mercenary sectors (common for MKUltra candidates, per Dave McGowan’s Programmed to Kill ). And then, he’s possessed by what he believes to be a god in order to carry out acts of extreme violence. So just the sort of thing that’s good, family, DisneyPlus+ viewing.