At the rise of American cynicism during the tumultuous 1960s, Robert Altman’s NASA competition movie Countdown (1967) ended with a moon-launch astronaut (played by James Caan) finally reaching his goal — but with blissful resignation to his personal doom. That climax — a Pyrrhic victory — would suffice for a culture in turmoil and even after Neil Armstrong stepped on the lunar surface two years later; Countdown’s vision still seemed both romantic and poetic. However, in the new feature First Man, director Damien Chazelle aims to give a realistic, procedural account of Armstrong’s journey, yet the poetry never happens. Chazelle’s take is dour, deliberately unromantic.
Now that Hollywood’s optimism is in a slump, First Man proposes the history of space exploration, from the Gemini test flights to the Apollo enterprises, as just another imperialist venture in which American exceptionalism is shown as pathetic and neurotic. None of the lead cast — Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, Claire Foy as his wife, Janet, Jason Clarke as astronaut Ed White, and Ciarán Hinds as Robert Gilruth, director of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center — are U.S. citizens. This oddity is neither an accident nor a meaningless professional coincidence. It indicates Chazelle’s intent to deny the essence of American exceptionalism, shearing it from its cultural roots. Expecting a nod to those African-American women of Hidden Figures who participated in NASA engineering? First Man’s characters are, instead, all white, beleaguered, and uncertain.
When introduced, Gosling’s Armstrong is weighed down by the loss of his first child, Karen (a victim of biology and fate, seen in sappy flashbacks), and Foy’s Janet remains unenthused about the marriage, child-rearing, and her husband’s livelihood. The prospect of “a leap for all mankind” doesn’t move her.
First Man will not matter past the moment of its release, but this moment (although the film has been deceptively promoted as the celebration of a triumph) actually mixes current political confusion with distaste for American aspiration. An immature film geek like Chazelle thinks his zeitgeist ambition is the same as cultural perception. Presenting the U.S. space program as not so much a military endeavor as a hotbed of sexual chauvinism, racism, and arrogance encourages a facile historical conclusion. It’s not a film about victory — Pyrrhic or any other kind. This non-celebratory “history” is as disaffected as Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and similarly misuses the towering IMAX screen to be unimpressive. When Chazelle finally reveals the lunar surface, the landscape is not eerily still, but banal: The screen’s breadth portrays anonymity or claustrophobia inside the space capsule. (This counterintuitive “logic” is like the widescreen close-ups in The Master and The Hateful Eight.)
But before that big letdown, Chazelle has already deflated our hopes by “equal-time” pandering to the wife’s unrelenting resentments and skepticism. Her dead-eyed nagging exposes Armstrong’s lack of parenting skill and disdains his inarticulate solitude. (Why did she marry him?) This could just be Chazelle’s own juvenile sense of the male–female dynamic, taking advantage of current political fashion, but it destroys the point of the story, which the British Foy undercuts with every false vocal inflection: “You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!” This is, inadvertently, an argument against female political foresight.
What does it say about post-2016 American pop culture that First Man offers the coldest depiction of matrimony on film? (Criterion might as well cancel its new release of Ingmar Bergman’s overwrought Seventies TV series Scenes from a Marriage.) When Janet first visits Neil in quarantine after he returns to Earth, her indifference is withering, like the focus of the film itself, which overplays her resentment.
Chazelle failed to redefine the movie musical in La La Land, owing to its hokey mixture of postmodernism and graceless ineptitude. Now he attempts to rewrite the history of American space exploration with the equally graceless First Man.
Grace, surprisingly, is what distinguishes Altman’s Countdown, De Palma’s Mission to Mars, and, especially, the sexual equanimity of Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff. None of Foy’s invective competes with the distinctly memorable female characterizations (by Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Mary Jo Deschanel, Barbara Hershey, Kim Stanley) in The Right Stuff, which balanced Kaufman’s frat-boy hijinks (Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Scott Glenn, Sam Shepherd, displaying a range of masculine nerve). Kaufman’s comic epic of all-American aspiration combined Howard Hawks’s respect for professionalism with Altman’s sense of communal idiosyncrasy. Its success was part of how American-renaissance filmmakers reexamined gender, genre, and America itself — from Altman’s view of the military-industrial complex on to De Palma’s later view in Mission to Mars.
First Man pares down all that humane splendor into small-minded cynicism about American accomplishment. To add black racial unrest, Chazelle exploits a soundtrack sample of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” recitation (despite giving short shrift to black Gemini mission astronaut Robert Henry Lawrence).
Chazelle confirms that the era of cultural and political ignorance is upon us. More and more movies will be displaying it — proudly, obnoxiously, and viciously. This new cynicism rewards smartness with smugness and tired, unsuspenseful drama.
As for First Man’s “flag” controversy over Chazelle’s decision to omit the planting of an American flag on the lunar surface, by the time Gosling’s Armstrong gets to the moon, the Stars and Stripes are seen several times: when Armstrong’s son raises a flag during the Gemini 8 mission (not patriotic fervor, just a glimpse); as a flag patch on the shoulder of a spacesuit uniform; in a flag decal on the side of landed Eagle spacecraft. None of these are meaningful given the film’s anti-American gestalt. Patriotism is a personal thing; deliberate dispassion about American history is a contemporary Hollywood tragedy.