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Review: The Radical Subjectivity of Damien Chazelle's "First Man"

In telling the story of the Apollo 11 moon landing, Damien Chazelle trims down the story to the sliver of one man's experience.
Beatrice Loayza
First Man
It should come as no surprise, considering the times, that a film about Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 moon landing should court controversy. Does First Man represent a liberal rejection of patriotism? Is it a sort of right-wing tall tale kowtowing to American heroism? That criticism of the film can be stretched out to fit all sorts of political targets should speak to the narrative tendencies of the cinema of Damien Chazelle, which proves time and time again that the young director is uninterested in political commitment. Like Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016), First Man explores the world of passionate men, devoted to their work to the point of folly.  In the case of First Man, Chazelle’s first nonfiction adaptation, the task of trimming not just any story, but one embedded with textbook authority in the American cultural imaginary, down to the sliver of one man’s experience has the ambitious, but precarious effect of warping individual achievement down to the Freudian nitty-gritty.
The real Neil Armstrong was of course known for his unassuming and reserved personality. In First Man, a focus on the emotional toll of recurring tragedies exacerbates this public persona into Ryan Gosling’s dramatized version—a dead-inside and distant, neglectful husband.  The direction First Man takes as an alternative to the easy footholds of colorful historical dramas with compelling ensemble casts is a dominant character arc that re-envisions the American hero as someone damaged in search of salvation; also an asshole, for all intents and purposes, because depression doesn’t really excuse negligence.
Consequently, the film keeps a melancholy blue-brown color palette to convey an ethereal but detached mood board. Images of middle-class domestic living—jazz records, dinner table goodbyes, kitchen hijinks—come in and out focus, observed at a distance through a dissociative lens like grainy artifacts or dusty, old home movies. Chazelle here makes it a point to reject the dream of space travel at the time as aligned with the national will to excel, insofar as the “national” is representative of those in power, or the spirit of citizens from all walks of life. Instead, NASA is cast in rogue colors, its other-worldly pursuits uniquely championed by a  “bunch of boys” (as Claire Foy’s Janet Armstrong so harshly puts it) whose aspirations generate public relations nightmares, and accusations of irresponsible government spending. Nevertheless, NASA and Armstrong, its most dedicated and capable member, push forward in spite of repeated errors and fatal damages spattered throughout the years and months preceding the fateful mission of ‘69, wherein the success of putting the first man on the moon smugly muffles criticism. But with nearly a decade of commitment comes severe neglect, as Neil is portrayed with tight-lipped concentration, practically ignoring the existence of his wife Janet and his two little boys, as well as the concerned input of his friends, maintaining a singular fixation on the dream of Apollo 11.
That First Man feels cold is a testament to the success of a work committed to visually reproducing the perspective of a man defined by his impenetrability. Most historical films offer a kind of history lesson, in a sense, and First Man certainly takes pains to demonstrate the dangers and uncertainty of America’s fledgling space program. All these true events, however, unfold as they are filtered through the kaleidoscope of our protagonist’s distressed psyche. The film defines the “moment” in terms of brute sensory experience and tunnel vision, coding America’s legendary enterprise in terms of an anguished, wrong but worthwhile masculine apologia.
Immersive, first-person space sequences are evidence of this perspective, relinquishing wide epic frames or indulgent 360 degree visions of space exploration in favor of an un-comprehensive experiential approach to space flight that showcases the unglamorous, but realistic bits and pieces of light and dark from the nosebleed section of a clunky spaceship. Armstrong’s historic achievement, too, is reductively articulated in terms of a significant personal event and reckoning, limited, like the field of vision aboard a spacecraft, to a single potent explanation. The death of his daughter, Karen, looms, so powerfully that even the awesome void of space, much less a healthy living family, can’t quite mute the insistence of memory, which latches on to every interaction and compounds the tragic loss of his coworkers.
Hollywood blockbusters tackling major moments in history so often take holistic approaches, blending melodrama, comedy, and adventure into a cocktail of general interest, but First Man mostly diverges from its space movie ilk (The Right Stuff, Apollo 13) and finds common ground with Pablo Larraín’s off-kilter biopic, Jackie (2016), and Denis Villeneuve’s sentimental sci-fi, Arrival (2016). Like these other films, First Man is a work embedded with individual trauma, and takes focus off the more conspicuous event at hand in order to privilege and elevate the smallness of personal experience.
The death of a child is the ultimate form of parental castration, and its precisely this feeling of inadequacy and failure that propels our fictional Armstrong into a career at NASA, where he will partake in the kinky therapy of violent machinery. On earth, things like the blackout inducing multi-axis device used for g-force training are preferable to the soft pleasures of family life, and in space the dream of no safe words is particularly alluring. Naturalistic scenes of his boys at play, cannonballing into pools and running through green lawns, punctuate the film’s steady dour mood, jarring because these feel so distant from the entrenched morbid realities of time and progress that the film leans into. Masochistic inclinations are reified as goal-oriented dedication and as a result, the erotics of Chazelle’s moon landing prove more interesting than missionary money shots of patriotic ecstasy and huge waving flags.
As much a tale of absolution as it is one of bravery and ambition, First Man relies on the historically built-in climax of the moon landing to form the crest of Armstrong’s character arc, posing epic accomplishment as a mighty form of erasure. The right stuff, as it were, to wipe clean a slate of guilt and painful memories.  Chazelle makes literal this rupture by shifting the last few minutes of the film into maudlin territory: upon reaching the moon and taking that fateful first leap for mankind, he releases a memento of his personal failings—his daughter’s beaded bracelet—into the black nothingness of space. Consider the moon as essential to the expunction of his emotional burdens as Mount Doom is to the destruction of the Ring.
But like Terrence Malick’s one-man-explains-it-all epic, The Tree of Life, First Man inevitably falls into the universalizing trappings of “great men” stories by depicting male suffering as the ethos of a particular historical event. Chazelle’s radical subjective style here, which steeps everything from the film’s formal elements to the psychological underpinnings of the narrative in the same tortured inward-looking solution, treats the events of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement, for instance, as mere historical ornaments nudging the sides of an exceptional focus and anguish. Janet Armstrong and other notable NASA crew-members are relegated to the outskirts, orbiting around our hero and his defects, unequipped and incapable of helping a man who insists on helping himself. That he will ultimately succeed in this endeavor in the most incredible, impractical way possible says less about Neil Armstrong and more about an imagined state of masculine self-realization today.


ReviewsDamien Chazelle

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