Damien Chazelle is having a truly fascinating career. Especially for a director so young. He kind of came out of nowhere with Whiplash, a captivating and stress-inducing look at the self-destructive nature of obsession, giving us one of the most fascinating cinematic villains in decades. And, logically, he followed that up with La La Land, a deconstructionist musical that attempted to take the tried and true format of the American studio musical and add in some modern insights and technological advancements, creating a hell of a crowd pleaser. I feel like you often see people divided among these films, often having people who love one and hate the other, or just hate both. But, I’m in the seemingly rare camp of loving both films. I think they’re both terrific, for very different reasons, and I’ve been very excited to see what Chazelle would be following up with. And I never in a million years would have guessed a quiet and ponderous biopic of Neil Armstrong, with virtually no jazz in sight. I get that he probably wanted to do something different, for fear to getting trapped in a rut and being labeled as a director with only one trick, but it certainly came out of nowhere. And, while I did end up enjoying the film, I think it’s without a doubt my least favorite of Chazelle’s work. But, while it’s not necessarily a success, it’s at least interesting.
First Man is the story of Neil Armstrong, the first human being to step foot on the moon. The story tracks his journey from test-pilot to astronaut, and way that that journey more or less destroyed him. Things begin in 1961 with Armstrong piloting experimental aircraft for NASA, working to develop the first spacecrafts. However, he’s not too popular in the organization, because he tends to cause a lot of failed experiments, primarily because he’s perpetually distracted by his young daughter Karen’s health problems. She has a brain tumor, and eventually succumbs to the illness, dying at a shockingly young age. So, to distract himself from his depression, Armstrong signs up for the Gemini program, the second attempt at getting manned spaceflight off the ground. Armstrong moves with his son and his long-suffering wife Janet to Houston, making friends with the other astronauts and beginning the process of sending human beings to space. Which doesn’t go well. The Russians end up successfully sending a human into space before them, and they seem to hit nothing but roadblocks.
But, the folks at the fledgling NASA keep to it, getting the Gemini project off the ground. Which isn’t done without sacrifice. Several of Armstrong’s closest friends and colleagues die in terrible accidents, providing data in the hopes that they’ll be able to someday do it successfully. And, after several failed attempts, Neil is involved in one of the first successful American trips to space, attempting to prove that some of their theories on how to reach the moon will be feasible. And, of course, it doesn’t go well. They come crashing back down to Earth, lowering the public confidence in the legitimacy and necessity of this whole project. But, they keep at it,and the Gemini Project morphs into the Apollo project. And things continue not to go well. Several astronauts are killed by mistakes on the Earth, never even getting into space. But, eventually it comes down to the Apollo 11 mission, what NASA believes will be the mission to finally land on the moon. Armstrong then prepares to travel to the moon with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Neil has to say goodbye to his children and Janet, possibly for the last time, and prepares to head into space. They have a successful launch, and begin the process of travelling to the moon. And, after a sort of hairy landing, they manage to get their lunar module to land on the Earth. Neil then becomes the first person to step onto the surface of the moon, taking his big step for mankind. And, as he and Buzz go about their duties, Neil places a small bracelet belonging to Karen onto the surface of the moon, hopefully leaving the weight of her death behind as they return to Earth to figure out what their lives post moon-landing will be.
First Man is a very strange film. I’m not quite sure how else you would tell the story of Neil Armstrong, I suppose raising the question of whether or not it made sense to focus on him instead of the Apollo Program in general. But I sure wasn’t expecting a slow and meditative look at a supremely broken man as he watches everyone he can possibly relate to die gruesome deaths, momentarily broken up by moments of claustrophobic and terrifying action. Its a bizarre roller coaster, one where we follow a shattered human being who seems unable to grapple with anything around him. Ryan Gosling puts in a good performance, but there just isn’t that much to the character of Neil Armstrong, resulting in a lot of the emotional and acting heavy lifting having to be done by Claire Foy, who has been pushed into the stereotypical “worried wife” role. But, all of he uneven, strangely staid film gets wiped away in the final sequence, because the actual moon landing, and the emotional catharsis you get from Armstrong dropping his daughter’s bracelet on the moon is incredibly powerful. It’s manipulative as hell, and ends up causing you to leave the theater thinking about little else, and sort of grading the entire film based on the powerful resonance of that final moment. Unfortunately, the further you get away from that moment, the more you have to come to terms with the incredibly strange film the preceded it.
Neil Armstrong is kind of an enigma. For how large his shadow looms over the history of the twentieth century, I don’t know much about him. He seemed like a rather reclusive figure. Especially compared to Buzz Aldrin, who seems to have no qualms about showing up anytime people want to talk about the moon, becoming something of a mascot for NASA. And a film like this is attempting to take the enigmatic and mysterious figure of Neil Armstrong and put him on display, letting us get a real look at an American hero. And, perhaps not surprisingly, that look reveals a shattered person. We like to think of our great American heroes as infallible beings, mythic figures who exist in history books, not as actual living breathing people. And yet, they were all flawed human beings, just like the rest of us. Neil Armstrong will forever be remembered in human history as the first person to walk on the moon. The footage of him, the recording of his voice, and the impact he made will echo throughout history. But the broken man, devastated by the death of his daughter, and the seemingly unavoidable presence of death in his life, isn’t going to be remembered. Because we like our heroes shallow, without any real insight into the actual lives they led, and whenever we get a look into the deeper person, it feels wrong.
First Man was written by Josh Singer, directed by Damien Chazelle, and released by Universal Pictures, 2018
Categories: Reel Talk