Wednesday, October 24, 2018

First Man

[A version of this post appeared yesterday at Lawyers, Guns & Money]

So, here's something you may not know about me: I love stories about solar system space exploration. I love fictionalizations of the mid-century space race like Apollo 13 and the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. I love hokey disaster movies in space like Gravity and The Martian. I have even voluntary sat down and watched absolute garbage like Defying Gravity, Ascension, and The First, simply because they were about the slow, complicated process of getting into space. Hell, I'm one of the few people who does not think Interstellar is completely worthless, mainly because the middle segment, set on a spaceship and focused on the characters having to overcome so many practical and technical challenges, checks every one of my favorite tropes.

Why do I love space stories so much? I love them because they satisfy my craving for competent, thoughtful protagonists. I love them because their heroes are usually smart, hard-working people who spend their time solving practical problems. I love them because they're set in an environment so challenging that even the simplest problems become incredible challenges that require creative, fascinating solutions. I love them because, at their best, the drama and conflict in them emerge organically from those challenging situations, not from contrived, parachuted-in personal issues. I love them because there isn't a better setting for genuinely impeccable plotting than space, where the only resources at your disposal are the ones you brought with you.

Most of all, I love stories about space exploration because they offer a different—and to my mind, better—model for heroic, adventurous storytelling than a lot of what pop culture produces. No one gets into space alone. No one does it by being a rule-breaking maverick. It takes thousands of people working together, respecting and listening to one another. The story of space exploration is the story of how, through self-sacrifice, hard work, cooperation, and camaraderie, we can achieve almost anything.

And yet, despite my genuine love for stories about space exploration and the Apollo program, I found myself feeling curiously unexcited about Damien Chazelle's First Man, a biopic about Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his path to becoming the first man on the moon. While some of the criticism voiced towards the film's project—basically "why bother when we already know he makes it"—struck me as glib (though, to be fair, the film does itself no favors on this front in its trailers, which do genuinely seem to suggest that there's some question on this point), I have to admit that I approached First Man in genuine puzzlement as to why it had even been attempted. 2016's Hidden Figures, it seemed to me, provided a much better template for future fiction about the Apollo program, shining a light on little-known corners of the endeavor, and on the people who took part in it who were not white men. Why go back to Armstrong and Apollo 11, whose story has surely been covered from every possible angle?

First Man doesn't really give you a satisfying answer to this question. It's a fantastic piece of filmmaking, with some stunning visuals and set-pieces—particularly the long final sequence on the moon itself, though I couldn't shake the sneaking suspicion that in shooting these scenes Chazelle was driven primarily by his crushing disappointment that none of the real moon landing footage is in HD. And there are moments in Josh Singer's script where you can almost sense a unique approach to the material. Where, instead of Right Stuff hyper-competence, or even Apollo 13 improvisation, the film highlights the ricketiness of the edifice NASA built to take men into space, the flimsiness of the technology that Armstrong and his fellow astronauts trusted with their lives, and the danger and uncertainty they met when they left the earth's atmosphere.

It's an interesting approach, but a rather flimsy scaffold upon which to hang an entire (long) movie. It works incredibly well in an early sequence, in which Armstrong and his fellow Gemini 8 astronaut Dave Scott (Christopher Abbott) find themselves spinning uncontrollably due to an unforeseen malfunction. Armstrong's firm-yet-clearly-exasperated response of "No. I'm busy" when NASA asks him for information about the capsule's condition while he's trying to calculate a solution before losing consciousness from G-forces conveys the seriousness of his predicament and the weight that's been placed on his shoulders. For all the support and technology backing him up, First Man is saying, it's ultimately up to him to do the job. Similarly, Michael Collins's (Lukas Haas) moment of barely-suppressed panic when bidding Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) goodbye as they leave for the lunar surface is a wonderfully human touch, a reminder that he is about to become the loneliest person in human history, and that there was a very real chance he'd have to make the journey back alone.

Other times, though, the film's wallowing in the dangers of the Apollo program feels deeply manipulative. I found the entire sequence leading up to the Apollo 1 disaster exploitative and macabre. The way the film lingers on doomed mission commander Ed White (Jason Clarke), from stressing his friendship with Armstrong, to having Armstrong genuinely congratulate him for being named the first Apollo commander, felt like taking dramatic irony to absurd extremes. And the choice to fully dramatize the astronauts' horrific deaths feels like it could only come from a place of wanting us to marvel at what a badass Armstrong must be, to stay on with the space program even after his friends died so terribly.

(To be fair, I'm bringing a lot of my own baggage to these reactions, since I didn't know anything about the Gemini 8 malfunction, but did know about the Apollo 1 disaster. That said, there's something genuinely unpleasant about the film's deliberate drawing out of the moment in which three men were incinerated in a metal coffin.)

Another way of looking at it, of course, is that First Man highlights the difficulties and dangers of space exploration in order to puzzle over the type of person who would brave them in order to achieve an objectively meaningless goal. As such, the film avoids a lot of obvious pitfalls. I've seen some people dismiss it as great man fetishism, and I don't think that's entirely fair (though, again, the film doesn't do itself any favors by placing so much emphasis on Armstrong's grief over the death of his daughter, ultimately seeming to imply that he ran to the moon to get away from it). On the contrary, First Man works hard to establish that the traits that make Armstrong uniquely suited to the technical and emotional challenges of his mission also make him something very different from the standard Hollywood hero.

As portrayed by Gosling, Armstrong is thoughtful, methodical, almost bereft of ego. He's not the easiest person to live with, especially when he's in the grip of a mission, as exemplified by the scenes he shares with his increasingly exasperated wife Janet (Claire Foy). But he's not the blustering, emotionally-illiterate manchild we're used to seeing as a stand-in for heroism. He understands his responsibilities as a husband and father, even though he expects Janet to tolerate his need to step away from them. And he understands his responsibility to the mission and the team, even though the film he's in chooses to downplay them both so entirely.

(Having said this, it's worth noting that the alt-right missed a gigantic trick when it chose to blow its nonsense culture war wad around this movie on the non-issue of the supposed absence of American flags—which are, in fact, featured quite prominently. In a different universe, some smarter MRA types waited to see the movie, and then embraced it as a return to the values of traditional masculinity, one that recognizes the space program as the achievement of brave white men, in direct contrast to something like Hidden Figures.)

What's missing from Gosling's Armstrong, however, and what ultimately made First Man's project with him fail for me, is any sense of wonder or joy. In the scenes depicting the actual moon landing, Gosling and the film's sound engineers worked to manipulate his performance so as to sound almost identical to the original recordings of Armstrong. But the extremely noticeable shift only draws attention to the choices Gosling and Chazelle have made elsewhere in the movie. Most of Gosling's line readings reek of the weight on his shoulders—of his mission, of his grief, of the sheer responsibility of being a Great Man. It's as though the entire endeavor would be cheapened if he ever allowed himself to feel happy or excited about what he was doing, or experience wonder at the privilege he was granted and the new frontiers he was crossing. When imitating the real Armstrong, on the other hand, he just sounds like a person—a little nervous, a little self-conscious, but mostly focused on the job at hand. We suddenly notice just how up himself the fictionalized version of Armstrong has seemed, and how the absence of that self-obsession makes one a much better emissary for humanity's first forays on another world.

In the end, for all of Chazelle and Gosling's incredible work, First Man is remarkably uninvolving. It lacks the sense of uplift that should be the foundation of any space story. It's so wound up in its hero's manpain—and in convincing us that it's not just manpain but something grander and more impressive—that it forgets to inspire us. I imagine there will be some people for whom First Man is the first Apollo program dramatization they've seen, and that thought makes me sad. We all deserve a version of this story that gives us joy and hope, that inspires awe at the universe and what it takes to explore it. If First Man wants us to feel awe, it is only at its hero.

4 comments:

Pascoe said...

I feel pretty similar to you regarding the film's exceptional dryness when it comes to depicting Armstrong and the mission, but diverge a bit on awe, wonder, joy, whether it delivered those things or not. Wrote about it briefly here (https://letterboxd.com/pascoef/film/first-man/) – the way that reflective, anonymising helmet Armstrong/Gosling wears on the moon let me escape his suffocating characterisation, let me just be overwhelmed by the sheer ridiculous brilliance of humankind getting all the way up there on that grey old rock. Damning with faint praise from one perspective, sure, but then it also affected me far more than any other film has this year.

raz greenberg said...

You should really watch "Silent Running" - it's not exactly about space exploration, but it is a major influence on both "Interstellar" and "The Martian" (and plenty of other films, like "Star Wars" and "Wall-E" - it's one of the most influential science fiction films in history.

Narmitaj said...

I liked First Man, and it seemed accurate as far as it went, though they had to select out a lot of stuff, but like you found it underwhelming.

I’m a minor space geek with about 350 books on the subject, and can from memory name all the US astronauts up to the first shuttle. Mentally I could fill in a lot of what the film-makers left out. Apart from obvious reasons of time, no doubt they did this to focus on Armstrong’s personal experience - the film was about the Man, not NASA.

So we saw Armstrong’s X-15, his Gemini-Titan launch and the moon-landing from in the cockpit. This was a brave artistic decision, and showed the ironic claustrophobic broom-cupboard and bumpy reality of soaring through vasty space, though it was also frustrating. The X-15 drop from a B-52 is spectacular but looked prosaic here. For a sight of a Gemini-Titan Neil and the astros could have been shown witnessing, eg, Ed White’s Gemini 4 mission launch. We could have seen his spacewalk even if only on magazine covers - those images are icons of the space age, up there with Aldrin on the moon. Instead we only saw Alexei Leonov (a decade later he was commander of the Soviet side of the Apollo-Soyuz mission, which is a nice touch).

So keen people like me, who watched the Apollo 11 moonwalk live as an 11-yo, know what a Gemini-Titan looks like, or an X-15 drop, but loads of younger and less-interested people would have had no library of mental images to supplement the movie.

The film-makers did break their - we saw Gemini 8 in orbit from outside, we saw the Apollo 1 fire close up even though Armstrong was in Washington; we saw the Apollo CSM stack flying between the earth and the moon where no camera could be. And we saw Apollo 11 launch from outside, even though Armstrong obviously was inside. I think one reason for the “lack of uplift” you mention was this lack of seeing our machines flying through strange spaces, exploring new worlds. Seeing the little lunar module skim across the moon’s bone dry surface from a distance would have been good.

As there was in reality no camera outside to see it land, and they wanted to keep to that rule, they could have replicated more real imagery from Apollo missions of the LEM departing from orbit and speeding across the surface. By keeping so much inside it made it all look like it took place in a simulator.

Once on the moon, it seemed like Armstrong simply strolled around being thoughtful. The images were spectacular, but we saw Aldrin do about 10 seconds of instrument carrying and Armstrong do nothing. In reality they were strictly timetabled with people chattering in their, including Richard Nixon. I suppose the film-makers gave time for reflective thought that the real mission could not afford. But for anyone who wondered why the Americans went to the moon, it looked like a bit of a pointless jolly; even the Space Race aspect had faded from the movie by this point.

And as you say, there seemed little joy. Armstrong liked to fly; he saved money to learn to fly at 16, before he could drive. He was a keen glider pilot, even while training for space missions (he glided to 22,800 feet three months before his Gemini 8 flight). A scene of him soaring alone through the sky without any engine might have been a more effective and thematically relevant view of his somewhat solitary nature than him standing in a garden looking at the stars.

I think it was fine to have a chunk of the film about Armstrong's lost daughter, and good to see Claire Foy as his wife dealing pretty much as a single mum with the kids, but overall I could have done with a bit less on him looking lost and miserable, and a bit more of them all doing simulation training or working with engineers and mockups.

The way they portrayed Armstrong, you did start to wonder why they selected him for any space missions! He looked a bit too psychologically damaged and detached much of the time. And in the pics you see of Armstrong himself, he seemed like a more smiley and interested and engaged and engaging chap than Gosling portrayed him.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

About the decision to show the spaceships from the outside: a lot of people have noted the way the movie changes film formats from one mission to another. The Gemini scenes are very grainy and dark. The moon footage is crisp and utilizes the entire breadth of the screen. The same might be true of the number of shots that show the exterior of the spaceships - maybe the closer you get to the moon, the more you get of them?

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