By Christopher Sharrett.
I have just recently seen Damien Chazelle’s First Man after putting it off during its initial release. The film holds some interest for me, unlike his previous two films, Whiplash (2015) and La La Land (2016), the first a throwback, I think, to films of the 1970s and the Reagan era, that lauded the father, however cruel or demented he might be, the second a pastiche of the musicals of the studio era, and of innovative musicals of Europe. The first segment of La La Land is a lift from the great Jacques Demy, but the film is no Demy film. It is a lackluster collage of various musicals, the controlling narrative derived from Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) (boy and girl have a melancholy romance while trying to make their way in the world). The film, obviously popular, for me had little joy, perhaps in part because of the mediocre singing and dancing abilities of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. The musical is essentially utopian, and La La Land’s failures may be because the film industry itself is today joyless, as is the nation that supports it. The large audience this film has created no doubt has little notion of the celebration that was the studio musical, no more that it has a sense of the better moments of the last century. So people settle for what they have? The film has ignited debate among jazz aficionados, some of whom appreciate the Gosling character’s advocacy of authentic jazz, but others accuse the film of whitewashing jazz, once again using the white hero to rescue a black art form.
Chazelle’s First Man, about astronaut Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 moon landing of 1969, has the good sense to return Ryan Gosling to his strong suit as actor: the strong, silent type, not on the model of Randolph Scott or Gary Cooper (both outed, in Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood (2018) (1), and the book Hollywood Babylon respectively), a model of masculinity destroyed, as I have argued elsewhere, by films such as Brokeback Mountain (2005). Rather, the strong silence of Gosling, whose line readings often seem flat, is centered on an alienated, often angry gaze, marshalled so well in Drive (2011), Blue Valentine (2010), and The Place Beyond the Pines (2012). He has been compared, inaccurately, to James Dean, whose emotional range exceeds that of Gosling. But Gosling more than adequately conveys rage, frustration, strained patience, sometimes affection.
The title First Man conveys Nietzschean ambition, and indeed sequences of the film evoke the transcendence implied in Kubrick’s 2001, yet all this is qualified, subdued. The title deletes the subtitle of the 2005 book by James Hansen, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, the source biography of the film. Full titles of books don’t assist adaptations, and in this case would commit the film to the banal. This is an eccentric work, evidenced first in the score by Justin Hurwitz, now a Chazelle collaborator. It is a Hollywood score of the old school, with a lilting main theme played unobtrusively on a flute, then grandly by full orchestra, suggesting the hero’s triumph in the wonder of the cosmos. But there are morose moments of near-industrial cacophony in the score, a rebuke of the film’s heroic impulse. This is accentuated by the inclusion of Gil-Scott Heron’s rap poem “Whitey on the Moon,” a work suggesting the utter irrelevance of NASA and the Apollo 11 moon landing to the struggles of the late 1960s, and indeed to the suffering people of the world. We might also say, if we allow such cynicism, that it never much concerned anyone. The score also includes a theremin to accent the science-fiction aspect of the film, making the whole NASA venture the culmination of male fantasy. The inclusion also of Les Baxter’s “space age” exotica/lounge music affirms the space project as escapism for the Fifties’ repressed male libido, as the film reminds us that the decade was far grubbier than the way it is now resurrected in pop art furniture and multicolored formica.
Gosling’s Neil Armstrong is not so much aloof (a quality attributed to the real man) as frozen within himself, detached as he fiddles with math equations on a notepad, walking through his home as if he shares it with no one, taking time to be a father as if by rote. Neil’s long-suffering wife Janet (Claire Foy) is supportive, as is expected of the type, but finally impatient and angry. At the end they will divorce (the real Armstrong couple divorced years after Apollo 11), but they share an ambiguous moment when Armstrong returns from his adventure – but it is only fingers attempting to touch through a glass wall. At that instant, Armstrong/Gosling seems a specimen in a glass cage of his own creation, utterly uninterested in human relations.
Armstrong has a major emotional moment when his baby daughter dies. The camera closes in on him for a very tight close-up as he breaks down alone; his grief is too profound to be shared, but is he concerned more to exclude his wife than burden her? His saves his daughter’s tiny bracelet only to throw it into a vast pit when he arrives on the moon. There is a sense that he is discarding what is left of his emotional life.
Janet Armstrong is associated with the suffocation of Fifties décor, mostly wooden and cheap plastic, not the gloss that is supposed to be part of our unconscious memory of the era. One can argue that the film confines her character to the stereotypical role of Fifties housewife; there were certainly various versions of Betty Friedan in this culture, but how many foresaw avenues of change? Janet shows dissatisfaction that complements the slow breakdown of the marriage; her countenance changes, her face ultimately glowering.
The NASA adventure seems in part a series of punishments to the male body. Neil fumbles a jet flight rendered to convey the airplane as death trap. We see the accidental incineration of three of the earliest astronauts in an Apollo disaster – it included Gus Grissom, one of the pioneer “right stuff” astronauts, whose death shocked the nation. Neil’s training for the Apollo 11 flight looks like sheer self-punishment, far less out of masochism than death wish. He take a grueling centrifuge test, asking for more while his colleagues barely pass. This is at the center of Chazelle’s film and Gosling’s performance. Is Armstrong a stout-hearted fellow or death-driven outsider (he doesn’t fit in the military), motivated less by the grief of his daughter’s death than some sort of existential angst?
The moon landing is subdued, yet spectacular, complete with Armstrong’s famous line as he touches the moon surface with his boot: “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” (I could never hear the indefinite article, making me think the line made little sense, but friends assure me it’s there, muffled by static). Controversy has arisen out of the deletion of the flag-planting by Armstrong and his buddy Buzz Aldrin. Chazelle seems to want to get beyond any jingoism, keeping the narrative focused on the spectral and essentially lonely nature of the landing. The moon landscape is especially arid, Neil remarking on the dust easily dislodged as he and Aldrin bounce around the surface, scooping up dirt. There are long pauses, showing Neil alone, staring at the ungodly satellite, for so long the topic of romantic pop songs. He becomes truly inscrutable, the sun visor of his helmet pulled down, obscuring his facing totally. The moment suggests less a moment of contemplation than a man erasing himself.
The 1969 moon landing is often remarked on as one of the big events of the “turbulent” Sixties, but it has little to do with the decade. When Armstrong returns from the voyage, he sees a tape of JFK’s exhortation on space travel playing – a little too conveniently – on a period TV. The speech seems long ago and far away even to the characters in the film. The Apollo venture provided a moment of triumphalism for the American establishment as resistance movements gained steam, only to lose it all by the late Seventies. Today, NASA is hardly high on the public agenda; it has certainly ceased as anything with which to create a public consensus, as it once did with its fascinating images of scientific achievement. Public morale is now such that we tolerate “theories” about the moon landing as a hoax, for whatever purpose.
The pastiche that is First Man reminds us of the apocalyptic current that ran through (and is still running?) the postmodernism debate. The film’s few celebratory moments are counterbalanced by grimness and discontent. Certainly First Man had to have been made first for the sectors of the public for whom the Apollo flights exist in living memory, or at least for the public that has space exploration as a constant hobby. Rarely do we hear much about space stations, and water on Mars provides dialogue for the latest Netflix series. The NASA events are hardly held in reverence, certainly not at a time when science itself, and critical findings about things like global warming, are topics for “critical thinking.” Apollo 11, at least as it is conveyed in this film, is part of a past heroic age – for those who wanted to look away from war protesters, MLK and RFK. It is part of a culture that puts up with “anniversary editions” of every rock album of the Sixties, regardless of the so-called anniversary landing on a year hardly indicative of achievement or durability. Everything decent has been accomplished, all good deeds performed, so we partake merely of an archivalism, gathering up all the good stuff – at least those who feel like participating – as we await The End. The other stuff is good only for spoofing. Perhaps this is why Ryan Gosling, our contemporary strong, silent male, is so glum.
Christopher Sharrett has taught film for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Corresponding Editor for Film International.
1) Patrick McGilligan’s interview with the director of Scotty, Matt Tyrnauer, will appear in issue 17.1 of Film International.