Shortly after First Man premiered at this year’s Venice Film festival, a small faction of conservative news sources made a big deal of director Damien Chazelle’s decision to not feature the planting of the American flag on lunar soil. When asked, Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) stated it was not a political choice, rather he “wanted to keep the primary focus in that scene on Neil’s solitary time on the moon.” Then Buzz Aldrin joined the dialogue, tweeting out two pictures of the famous stars-and-stripes moment—hashtagging #proudtobeanAmerican #freedom #honor #onenation—making very clear what he believes that 1969 trip represents in the lore of American identity.
Let’s be clear: First Man is far from another addition to the canon of space films depicting men as fearless and heroic pioneers of that last great frontier. Chazelle and his two-time leading man, Ryan Gosling, have made careers exploring the psychology of ambition and the inevitable sacrifices it leaves in its wake. Josh Singer’s (The Post, Spotlight) screenplay, adapted from James Hansen’s biography of the same name, dismantles the posterboy mascot of 1960’s American Greatness in favor of representing Neil Armstrong as the man he was—cold, calculating, and overwhelmingly reserved.
In First Man’s opening act Armstrong barely survives a jolty, claustrophobic test flight above the earth’s atmosphere, and at home he and his wife (Claire Foy) suffer the loss of their two-year old daughter from cancer. The rest of the film maintains this balance between the space race at NASA and the impact it has at home (or, just as likely, the balance between the loss of his daughter and the impact it has on the NASA space race). Through this structure we understand the ways in which extreme loss becomes the fuel for Armstrong’s ambition.
As the film builds towards the inevitable success of the first lunar landing, tension is harvested instead through the portrayal of a man (Gosling underplays like a 2049 replicant) who is slowly insulating himself from the pain of his exterior life. Where early test flight scenes are characterized by POV shots of the blue earth outside the small capsule doors and disconcerting exterior angles of the ship, later space scenes transition our gaze to the astronauts themselves, the whole IMAX screen taken up by their suited bodies, the audience crammed into the seat right next to them. Conversely, the intimate closeness of the early domestic scenes with Armstrong’s daughter are replaced by arguments unfolding in stagnant, backlit shots framed by dark doorways. The more Armstrong doubles down on his commitment to success, the more his home life begins to resemble that first claustrophobic view of a distant earth through capsule doors.
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Armstrong is being interviewed for a crew position on the team that will go to the moon and is asked why he thinks going to the moon is worth the American people’s time and money. He replies, “Space exploration changes your perception. It allows us to see things we should have seen a long time ago.” Armstrong is saying this as a man who has yet to accomplish this feat, speaking to the dark room of movie-goers fifty years past the future he describes.
In First Man, Chazelle makes us painfully aware of the vantage point of our own accomplishments. Although much of the tumult of this time in history has been swept under the rug by the grandness of a successful moonwalk, Chazelle steps away from his film predecessors by not completely ignoring the world that this success emerged from. We see the protests outside of mission control screaming about investing time in a superfluous space program when boys are dying in Vietnam and racial tensions at home are reaching an all-time high.
From the film’s own remove of over half a century since the landing—when we haven’t had a man on the moon in 46 years and civil unrest is again tearing a nation apart—Armstrong’s words on perspective take on new weight. Chazelle may claim that this film is not a political act, but he is wrong. By dismantling the myth of the astronauts as the heroic and gallant cowboys of space, by allowing the voice of descent into the frame, even by not showcasing the planting of the American flag on lunar soil, First Man pushes against the jingoism and gallantry of Blockbuster culture and finds its hero in the flaws of a human man.