There is something tremendously 2018 about an astronaut movie managing to piss off a bunch of people — including a sitting US senator — before it ever hits theaters. Astronauts are supposed to be what kids want to be when they grow up, the profession that unites us by reminding us that from space, it’s clear we’re all sharing the same blue-and-green rock! And yet First Man, an innocuous-sounding film about the Apollo 11 mission to the moon and the years leading up to it, somehow became the prestige cinema equivalent of a stranger whose face you just can’t stand. At Jezebel, for instance, Bobby Finger declared it his awards season villain, based mainly on the fact that it’s directed by a straight white guy (La La Land’s Damien Chazelle) and about a straight white guy (Neil Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling), and had already gone over gushingly well with at least one prominent straight white guy (Variety’s Owen Gleiberman).
In a divisive essay in the New York Times Magazine, Wesley Morris brought up his instinctive reaction to the film as an example of how he’s not immune to the kind of outsize outrage he argues now rules the day: “Then I got mad at the idea of Ryan Gosling in a movie called First Man and knew I was losing my mind. Am I really mad about this?” Meanwhile, on the political right, there was a whole dumb news cycle spawned by a misleading report that First Man leaves out the moment that Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (played by Corey Stoll) planted an American flag on the moon. If you actually watch the movie, you see the flag there, clearly visible in multiple shots, but that didn’t stop manufactured furor over perceived failures of patriotism from making its way around multiple outlets and then up to a Marco Rubio tweet.
It seems safe to say that this ire isn’t entirely due to people’s emotions running hot over depictions of the history of space travel — it has at least as much to do with the sanctuary Oscar season movies tend to take in the stories of important men. At a time when everyone’s feeling raw about pretty much everything, First Man has become an unanticipated inflection point with regard to how we enshrine American achievements, especially ones that inevitably double as celebrations of white masculinity. To put it more bluntly, some look up at that title and the poster of Ryan Gosling’s stern face and roll their eyes at a framing that suggests Armstrong is a great man who did not travel to the moon so much as he deflowered it, while others, finding that inadequate, are demanding to see actual penetration. First Man tells a story entrenched in what’s become loaded iconography, and so it raises the question of whether it’s possible to do that without endorsing the conservatism that iconography has been claimed by (Richard Brody at the New Yorker, clearly believing the answer is no, called the film “a right-wing fetish object”) — or needing to use it as a symbol of hypocrisy.
First Man takes place during the ’60s, and it’s not the ’60s of protests and counterculture (though that’s glimpsed, briefly, to the accompanying strains of Leon Bridges performing Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” — “I can’t pay no doctor bills / But whitey’s on the moon”). The world of First Man is one of square jaws and close-cropped haircuts, low-slung midcentury houses on suburban culs-de-sac, beers on the patio with the boys while the women are inside tending to the kids and cleaning up. (Claire Foy plays Janet Shearon, Armstrong’s first wife, in what might be the uber “when will my husband return from sea” role.) That decade, we’ve been assured a lot of late, is a time when America was Great, and it was a time when American ingenuity was leading to leaps forward into the cosmos, toward some sci-fi future in which we would build suburban cul-de-sac houses inside glass domes on the moon, so that men could stand outside them drinking space beers while their wives tidied up the aftermath of their space get-togethers.
The movie, which pulls from a biography by James R. Hansen, similarly fits its take on Armstrong into a traditional idea of American masculinity — someone strong and tough who prioritizes action over words, someone suitable to extend Manifest Destiny beyond the stratosphere. But it would be a mistake to say that First Man in any way idealizes Neil’s buttoned-up personality, for all that his capacity to repress his emotions makes him an excellent pilot and astronaut.
He’s introduced to us in a scene where he remains levelheaded during a test flight in which he “bounces off the atmosphere.” It’s a bone-rattling sequence — one of a series that, shot in succession, left Gosling with a mild concussion — but it has nothing on a later scene in which Neil keeps calm as his spacecraft spins faster and faster during a docking mission, he and his fellow pilot racing against time to right the problem before they pass out (this is a bad movie for the motion sick). Then, when he’s at the side of his young daughter, Karen, as she gets treated for the brain tumor that kills her at the age of 2, he can’t give voice to that pain and fear, either, even as grief eats him up inside.
It’s not that Neil doesn’t feel anything — it’s that he is unable to let those feelings out. He is alone inside himself even when he’s with family members who love him or colleagues in the same boat. It’s a portrayal of old-fashioned masculinity as a profoundly solitary experience. Neil has to go to space in order to be far enough away from the world to feel comfortable letting his anguish loose.
Mourning is as much a throughline in First Man as the space race is — Neil’s mourning for Karen, but also mourning for his fellow astronauts, who perish offscreen in crashes and onscreen in horrible accidents where they burn to death. There is nothing romantic about the palm-sweatingly intense depictions of NASA’s stagger-steps forward toward landing on the moon. When Neil almost dies himself after things go wrong in that docking mission, NASA workers cut Janet off from her ability to listen along at home — for her own protection, they might say, and also a maddening bit of infantilization that she rejects. The wholesome image of the bright, cheery family is, we see, one that is performed for a Life magazine photo spread. The reality is Janet forcing Neil to talk to their two sons before the big mission because it could be the last time — a task he treats with much the same reluctant brusqueness he does the press conference he’s also made to participate in. He’s a loving husband and father, but he’s not an especially good one.
First Man doesn’t glorify the era it’s depicting, or the people — especially not the man at its center, all roiling emotions locked up tight so that he’ll never be vulnerable. But it doesn’t scathingly tear down the American mythos that has been built up around them, either. It suggests that such an approach is unnecessary — that it’s enough to depict things as they were, without the gloss this national myth has been given over time, the inconvenient details sanded away.
The moon landing, in First Man, does not look like an act of heroism. It looks like work, done by an insular collection of white men, marked by constant failures, and completed at the expense of a country that certainly wasn’t in lockstep support of the program (funding was primarily driven by a desire to beat the Soviets). And yet the actual landing on the moon is still a sublime moment, an instance of alien wonder, as humanity figured out how to cross a vast and hostile distance to set foot somewhere new. That awe is able to exist alongside all the human baggage that comes with it.
In September, President Trump told the Daily Caller that he wouldn’t be seeing First Man because of the whole flag debacle, the foreordained capper on a nonstory: “It’s almost like they’re embarrassed at the achievement coming from America. I think it’s a terrible thing,” he said. You have to wonder what he’d think of the film if he ever did see it, especially as someone who’s expressed interest in another manned flight to the moon, but who’s also talked about setting up a separate, militarized “Space Force” to defend space rather than explore it, and has gone so far as to email out retro-futuristic logos.
The fantasy of space, of setting foot in new realms, has had a hold on the popular imagination since long before Trump took office, and his talk of militarizing it and going to Mars is a way to play on those fondnesses without getting into the gritty details or what it would take to fund those ventures. It’s a lot easier to dream of the moon than it is to engage in the grinding, dangerous labor involved in actually going there, and it wasn’t a swaggering cowboy but a stoic engineer who took that initial step, something First Man makes briskly and effectively clear. In reminding us of that, this is a movie that — flag or no flag — doesn’t need to take a political stance to make a political statement. ●