The Howling Gale of the Finite: "First Man"

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Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a biopic of true-life space oddity Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), is not about the grandeur of the cosmos, but the precariousness and flimsiness of the ingenious tools that take us there, and furthermore, the fragile bodies encased in that machinery. Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s camera becomes an extension of the machinery, struggling to hold onto those bodies registered in its artificial optics before finally delivering its informational storytelling—about the most enigmatic of historical lives—to us. As the NASA program sprints in a race with the Soviet Union to grapple space, Chazelle constructs an analogue to the difficulty to grasp a life, and the disparity between the public image and a hidden inscape.

This associates to some of the culture’s fractious discourse, given how a loud segment of the dipshit population has screeched about how Chazelle and Leftist Hollywood Inc. has decided to nix the planting of the United States flag on the lunar surface (or something; I’m admittedly one of the exhausted liberals just tired of this bullshit). Of course this ignores other American flags we see in the movie, some in very complimentary close-up. The sacrament of a nation staking its claim on a plot of land, though, is secondary to the inscrutable prime mover behind a blank-faced dude’s actions. Neil Armstrong, so I’m told, epitomizes such a blankness in the last century of America, a kind of white whale (“Whitey on the moon” indeed, to quote a protest song we hear in First Man, if I may loosely bind contentious ‘60s tumult to Melvillian wonder). A friend who’s read much on the space program told me that, had Armstrong run with the momentum he had after the moon landing, he would become the world’s most influential celebrity, even greater than, for example, Muhammad Ali. But he chose a withdrawal from the spotlight. Why go to the moon in the first place? What’s behind that countenance?

Gosling plays Armstrong with the same spectrumy absence of demonstrative facial affectation he had in Drive (2011), here dabbed with a Mid-American cadence to his speech. Apposite to his destination, he’s a moon-faced dude, and as the film crawls closer—through NASA disasters and malfunctions—toward landing on the moon with the camera gradually revealing it in increasing focus, we’re conceivably getting closer to cracking the Armstrong code. Josh Singer’s screenplay has this revolve around the notion that much of the mystery has to do with the family man who lost his cherubic daughter, Karen, to cancer. We see her point up at the moon in his company, crossed with the transitions of her coffin descending in the earth. In grief, Neil never discusses his grief with wife Janet (Claire Foy), or his fellow astronauts (Jason Clarke plays the first space walker Ed White, who ably fulfills the structural function of the best friend).

The script may well hamper the whole film down, however, as there’s an awful lot of developmental pathos padding with Neil and Janet’s strained relationship and his inability to communicate the risks of his work to their (other) children. There’s a perfunctory nature to this earth-to-moon journey also. The journey to space is less the stuff of the unbounded and novel imagination than a construct accumulated through years of television and movies—to say nothing of Kubrick and 2001: A Space Odyssey (given lovely homage at a few points, as Chazelle stages the syncing of space apparatuses to a waltz on the soundtrack, much like Kubrick’s use of the “Blue Danube.”) We get the mission goal stated by Astronaut Office Chief Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), follow Neil and his colleagues in their intensive preparations, witness the tragedy of mishaps as several of these men are killed, and finally, with much suspense, we get to the moon.

Then again, space—or “space”—is as much of an abstraction here as “people.” First Man’s bravura opening is up close with Neil as he mans—or tries to at least stabilize—an aircraft heading above the stratosphere, breaking out of the lush but messy blue ozone and into the dark calm of outer space. Our eyes try to capture what the camera shows us in jittery and claustrophobic close-ups, the vantage Neil is given through his window equally limited. There’s a terrifying helplessness here as material struggles to hold together under duress of speed, pressure, and temperature alterations. Neil submits to the god of aerodynamics, the only divinity in which to put one’s faith at this juncture. Humankind has settled new frontiers in First Man’s context, having split the atom only 16 years prior and jeopardizing civilization with its genius. Yet with more control over the temperamental leviathan of Nature, there’s a deeper Yeatsian unease as things truly do fall apart, the center not holding (or the screws, steel, and wires). The film carries a leitmotif of an unspoken “oh shits” through NASA’s misadventures, beginning with the jolting opening. Sitting through such intensity finely staged, we can see why a more impulsive astronaut like Buzz Aldrin (played by Corey Stoll here) would one day punch a moon landing-denier in the face.

From there, First Man examines Armstrong and the NASA experience from this close-up vantage to discern something new, in striking contrast to Phillip Kaufman’s masterwork The Right Stuff (1983) and Ron Howard’s just dandy Apollo 13 (1995). Through Neil’s adventure, daughter Karen’s ghost follows him, and the girl who would never grow up serves a function for Chazelle and Singer, who as artists look for a new perspective much as scientists do. The jarring cross-cutting of Neil’s professional life and Janet’s domestic life of baking cookies and child-rearing comes across as clumsy work. But it materializes as an expression of the sexist disparity between men and women in this context. Janet and the other stay-at-home wives also went to university, but the dialogue implies the endgame was to find stability and “normalcy” in meeting husbands (incidentally, a marriage to an astronaut does not equal normalcy). This tacit tragedy of unfulfilled potential is of much more interest than the stifling scenes between Neil and Janet, as Foy is given as little interesting material to work with as her character. Neil Armstrong’s—and so Damien Chazelle’s—final gesture in the film is a lovely nod to the daughters of tomorrow, in the hope that these customary biopics of Great Men will pass on and serve the sexes equally.

Not until Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin finally descend the ladder to the moon and we get a lovely 360 degree shot of the barren landscape are we permitted much sense of the bigness of the world, and even then, it’s that final gesture involving a memento of Karen’s falling into the darkness that suggests something limitless. Personal and inward landmarks that elude articulation count more than public ones, such as flags (or, for that matter, the observed progressive subtext of sexual demarcation shoehorned in). When First Man plays its part as a restaging of history or family, with press conferences, training exercises, and domestic arguments, it’s as dull as Neil Armstrong’s outward demeanor. The historical amazement doesn’t seem to translate. But when the physics of those historical bodies are caught in the the howling gale of the finite (as opposed to the infinite), with wires exploding and incinerating people, glasses breaking and slicing hands, and looming machinery dwarfing and invasively inspecting a sick child, First Man is anxious rumination of a universe that feels like it’s compressing more than expanding. In this sense, it’s more consonant with 2018 than 1968, when the NASA uni-angle on the earth has undergone a metamorphosis with the world is long-shot now in social media and telesurveillance’s ubiquitous close-up, when the earth might as well be flat. The film concludes with a soul stirring image of longing with husband and wife separated by glass, quarantined from each other. Particularly with the plastic-y obfuscations of DCP theatrical exhibition, the film’s heart feels walled off from the viewer.