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In ‘First Man,’ Triumph for White Male Dreams

Dir. Damien Chazelle—3 STARS

First Man Photo
Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy star in “First Man” (2018), directed by Damien Chazelle ‘07.
At the beginning of “First Man,” Neil Armstrong has a job interview. It’s not poetic, like the swirling, musical audition in “La La Land,” Damien Chazelle’s 2016 polarizing awards show darling and the most recognizable oeuvre in the Academy wünderkind’s corpus. Nor does it command the militant energy of the disciplinarian teacher’s voyeurism in the opening scene of Chazelle’s 2014 “Whiplash.” It’s not even central to the action of “First Man,” which largely revolves around the terrifying and death-defying space missions that follow. But like the other interviews, it encapsulates the main character’s — in this case, Armstrong’s — work ethic, a demonstrated commitment to his raison d’être. “I don’t think it’ll be exploration just for the sake of exploration,” he explains patiently, of the Gemini 9 mission. “I think it’ll be more the fact that it allows us to see things that maybe we should’ve seen a long time ago.”

Armstrong, like the rest of Chazelle’s characters, is a dreamer. He believes wholeheartedly in the value of this mission, not just as a political pawn in the space race against the Soviets (though that’s undeniably a pressing impetus, both in the film and real life), but as a societal good. Space travel has inhabited the American mythos for the past few generations — Armstrong’s children themselves are already in their 50s and 60s — so it’s unlikely that “First Man” is the first dose of outer space imagery for most moviegoers. Somewhat self-consciously, the biopic, directed by Chazelle and featuring Ryan Gosling in the titular role, doesn’t claim to be an all-encompassing account. Rather, it approaches Armstrong’s story from an intensely human angle, focusing on the emotional cost of the endeavor rather than reveling in the achievements. It also chronicles the trials and tribulations of spaceflight in this era, from governmental roadblocks to domestic conflicts. Rounding out the latter category is familial tension, centered around Neil’s wife, Janet (a dynamic Claire Foy, who proves her chameleonic abilities again and again). It’s a hefty undertaking to make suspenseful film that centers on one of the most well-documented events in modern history, and Chazelle attempts it with aplomb and boyish admiration. Yet there’s something disappointing about its narrow scope, which eclipses other characters in favor of orbiting one man as the film’s gravitational center.

To Chazelle’s credit, “First Man” makes a good faith effort to steer away from the overblown triumphalism of past space travel accounts. (The right-wing controversy about the flag omission proves as much.) Mundane moments, from office drudgery to tedious physics lessons, show that being an astronaut isn’t just the sparkly, glamorous stuff of kindergarten ambitions. This mission is a terrifying endeavor with a body count, and scenes of immense pathos — a private moment of shuttered grief during a funeral, pained recollections of fallen colleagues — attest to the stakes of this enterprise, grounding Armstrong’s triumphs with deeply human tragedy.

These scenes also, however, point to the mores of masculinity that men of the era were expected to espouse: stoicism, strength, and little tolerance for sentimentality. Solitude and quiet brooding are Armstrong’s modus operandi, which Gosling plays accordingly with clenched jaw and clipped terseness. Though this portrayal can distance viewers from Armstrong’s consciousness, it’s certainly factual, as the real-life Armstrong exemplified this brand of masculinity: Janet, who quietly divorced Armstrong in 1994, once said, “Silence is Neil Armstrong’s answer. The word ‘no’ is an argument. He is a very solitary man.”

Poor Janet. It’s easy to imagine those words from an exhausted woman whose emotional and domestic labor held down the fort at home, while Armstrong made a name for himself in space. True, the Armstrongs share tender moments, like the one where they sway in their darkened living room to “Lunar Rhapsody,” a theremin-heavy crooner. But on the whole, Janet’s life is as turbulent as her husband’s career, with the added pressure of being an unwavering constant in an effectively fatherless household. “I wanted a normal life,” Janet says wistfully in the film. “Neil seemed so different from all the boys on campus. He seemed so stable. All I wanted was stability.”

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Maybe it’s Foy’s stellar performance or the intensity of this familial turmoil. But the most compelling drama is arguably neither outside of Earth’s atmosphere, nor at mission control, but in the humble, one-story Ohio house where Janet raises the Armstrong boys. It’s too bad that Chazelle leaves this complex drama unplumbed, that it’s merely a device to further Armstrong’s character. The film tacitly suggests his emotional repression is not emblematic of toxic masculinity, but rather a kind of quiet strength. His fatherhood, which is negligent at best and absentee at worst, is simply indicative of a higher calling. Leave the child-rearing to Janet, right? Foy easily ramps up passivity to annoyance, eventually escalating to outright fury. “What are the chances you’re not coming back?” Janet snaps, the night before Neil’s departure. “I don’t want a fucking number. It’s not zero, is it?” Foy’s anger is refreshingly raw, the kind of stripped-down performance that anchors a film — and a man — that desperately wants to take off. Disappointingly, this seems to be a recurring motif for the filmmaker: Janet fits easily into the cadre of Chazelle’s other stifled female characters (“Whiplash”’s Nicole, “La La Land”’s Mia), the ones who are told to step aside, lest they stand in the way of their male partners’ success.

To that end, the film tends to veer toward triumphalism anyway, partially because it’s hard not to portray Armstrong and other men of his ilk in a heroic light. Undeniably, white men are at the helm of this film. They cluster around clunky computers and tensely murmur to each other. They take long walks. They sit in backyards and clink bottles of beer, gazing at stars. While their story is a valid and meaningful one, it’s also historically been the only one, and in an age of increasing representation — even in another film regarding this very historical event — it’s hard to view “First Man” as anything other than regression. The story is already jam-packed, tightly edited, propulsive, and economical, but undeniably, it’s also a little myopic. Janet’s feelings of erasure prove a point: When you only care about the First Man, it seems, there’s no room for anyone else.

—Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at caroline.tsai@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolinetsai3.

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