First Man: Experiencing something we can’t remember
It starts with a shudder.
When looking to re-tell some of the most significant moments in human history, textbooks, documentaries, and mediums that, at least in some way, look to try and uncolor the re-telling of history, do so with a feel for some kind of objectivity. Whether it’s for educational purposes or a simple yearning for some sort of unbiased exposition -however impossible that may prove to be -there are decisions made that service a more unidimensional look at certain events. Within that, there are moments so calcified by the unexamined fashion in which they’ve continuously been presented, that the historical nuance they undoubtedly possess can seem lost to the nether of time.
Damien Chazelle’s decision to actuate yet another film centered around the lunar landing is one clearly taken with this pervading sense of knowing into account. With so many films having taken the approach of faux-objectivity or the lionization of Americans in space, audiences, even those nearly sixty years removed from the source material, are, at the very least, familiar with the happenings of the first moon landing. What many probably aren’t so situated with is the surrounding societal and social nuance with which the event took place. With a linear, ever-narrowing projection of time and, more significantly, history dominating the culture, not only is it difficult to remember exactly what happened at a particular moment in time, but to also shield one’s eyes from the mysticism radiating from the one looking back at it.
It’s with this dedication, then, to try and more clearly project a place lost to the annals of time, that Chazelle shakes us into fallible subjectivity. The juddering of Neil Armstrong’s cockpit violently shifts the viewer from the musings of yet another tale of a nation’s triumph to the shortcomings of one man. From the off, Chazelle appears to have a clear grasp as to what matters when contextualizing history’s most impressionable moments- perspective. We may never have the ability to truly understand what it was to conceptualize the world in the late sixties, but we can get an idea of what people cared about and why.
To achieve the potential for relatability — fostering an environment within which the viewer can both understand the immediate story while still being able to supplant themselves into the larger message of the film — Chazelle embarks on drawing the boundaries of a logically paradoxical world. It’s no secret that some liberties are taken with the personal details of the main character, Neil Armstrong, but everything else maintains an almost militant degree of accuracy. In what ultimately serves as both the necessary minutiae of a rhetorical space and the tension for the film’s protagonist, Chazelle’s dedication to period accuracy is a large part of what makes the film’s core prose so effective. Even if the viewer is entirely familiar with the specific successes and failures of the various launches, the tension building from what can sometimes look like a trash can about to hit 18,000 miles per hour is undeniable.
Outside NASA labs and test facilities, however, is where the film truly finds itself. As a feat that’s both a product of a life of work and one used to distance himself from the seemingly unavoidable death of his young daughter, the moon landing becomes so much more when seen through the eyes of those who helped realize it. Through the hardships Armstrong faces as one of a small group of astronauts chosen to trial and error their way to the moon, lies a communal tale of loss, ambition, social strife, and political turmoil.
Kurt Vonnegut’s criticism of its immense cost to the taxpayer, for example, backed by the hum of activists chanting Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon,”
“No hot water, no toilets, no lights.”
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
is just one of many re-vitalized angles the audience becomes privy to. The moon landing’s prior existence as an entirely unimpeachable American conquest may have been slightly subverted in recent years with a more ready admittance of Soviet domination up until that point, but few, if any, mainstream films will have challenged this moment in time so significantly.
That sense of reviewed complexity then continues as Chazelle’s incredibly effective world-building moves into the suburbs. This time, though, the period-appropriate cans of Budweiser and impeccably kept steel boats acting as cars provide a platform for another kind of star-powered spectacle. The intimate back and forth between Claire Foy and Ryan Gosling, acting as Mrs. and Mr. Armstrong respectively, is where the film’s larger message lies. Between the relationship they share as husband and wife to the ones they maintain with those around them, the film does a brilliant job at thawing figures frozen in time.
Though Foy’s performance as the stern, no-nonsense wife is bridled more than one might hope, her character provides a bridge to the crucial, emotive core of what Chazelle is trying to underline. The momentous accomplishment of landing and, more importantly, returning from a place outside our atmosphere may be exactly that, but it should be remembered for what all significant things more genuinely are. There’s often a desire to try and lose ourselves in the great things we do. To forget about our failures and, even, perhaps, the things we were railing against in pursuit of a goal, but anything anyone has ever done is as much a product of its surroundings as it is itself. The lunar landing can still be humanity’s most cosmically rewarding accomplishment and also serve as a glaring example of the people in society we still ignore today. Neil Armstrong can be the brilliant astronaut whose role played a major part in getting a nation to the moon, while also having a majority of that journey propelled by emotional damage and an inability to cope with it.
What hits so brilliantly throughout is how Chazelle both constructs and allows the film to communicate itself. You get a great idea of what struggles NASA faced through his practical effects, focus on period accuracy, and editorial decisions. At times, it can even feel like you’re riding along with these figures, just as nervous and jarred by the derailed roller coaster they’re careening into space on. Equally, the emotional message -the journey the Armstrong’s take as parents, members of a community, and people put under the harsh spotlight of history- is told in facial expressions and quiet conversations. When needed, the dial is turned to eleven: we’re passengers on the multi-axis trainer, we’re unmoored on the edge of the atmosphere spinning out of control, but we’re also a fly on the wall as a mother demands her partner to face the reality of leaving a family behind. The two kinds of messages are told in a similar fashion but use different languages. Maintaining the ability to tell both, seemingly simultaneously, is what gives this familiar story an entirely new dimension.
Few who see Damien Chazelle’s First Man will have any recollection of the events portrayed in the film. Few will remember a time without the internet, and fewer will be able to remember when their only outlet for information was a radio or black and white TV. And yet, few will leave without feeling the gravity of what happened in 1969. In accepting the subjective lens with which we must perceive and remember history through, Chazelle shows us the fallacy in trying to tell anything other than personal stories when recounting the past. Though there remain angles unrequited by the caring touch of the film’s scope — unsurprisingly, there are more than a few ways to see the lunar landing — the approach taken provides a more useful mold for more accurately remembering moments once thought to be lost in time.