Movie Review: First Man
By Felix Quinonez
November 20, 2018
Damien Chazelle’s old fashioned, emotionally gripping First Man aims to inspire and move viewers and succeeds on both counts. The movie, based on the book of the same name, looks back on a monumental moment in the history of, not only this nation, but the world. However, the movie frames it from a personal point of view. It focuses not only on the perils and challenges of the Apollo 11 mission but also on the toll it took on Neil Armstrong and his family.
In doing so, the movie serves as a testament to the magnitude of human achievement but also as a reminder of why we strive for greatness in the first place. This is the second time Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling, who portrays Neil Armstrong, have worked together (after La La Land) and they prove to be an inspired team.
First Man tells the story of the Apollo 11 mission and the years leading up to it. Aside, from a few very effective flashbacks, the movie is mostly linear, covering the years between 1961 and 1969 when the US was in a mad dash to beat the soviets to the moon. It also focuses on the many missions, some failures, that made Apollo 11 possible. This reminds people that unlike the romanticized version of the moon landing, it wasn’t one single glorious mission.
Instead it was a costly, and arduous series of missions that cost money and more importantly the lives of brave people that have, generally, been forgotten about. But the movie does recognize the myth around the event and doesn’t attempt to approach the scope of the importance it holds for people. Instead it narrows down its focus to zoom in on the personal story at the center. In doing so it manages to give viewers an emotional thorough line while speaking on universal truths about loss and sacrifice.
And that approach is reflected on how the movie treats the event itself. This isn’t a movie that doubles as recruitment propaganda for NASA, nor does it romanticize the idea of the “American Spirit” or “pull yourself up by the boot strap” masculinity. In fact, in subtle ways, it’s a dismissal of those outdated beliefs.
Most importantly, it doesn’t glorify the people and especially the man at the center. The movie instead chooses to portray a more nuanced and grounded depiction without resorting to the popular impulse of tearing down these accomplishments by entangling them in controversy.
It, instead, has enough confidence in the story to tell it, simply, as it happened. In doing so, First Man grounds the outsized myths while at the same time, it inspires by reminding viewers that we reached the moon not by the actions of supermen but by regular people doing their jobs.
Like any movie, First Man puts a lot on its star and Ryan Gosling, as Neil Armstrong gives a powerful performance that is both nuanced and emotional. Gosling is, no doubt, a dashing movie star with a lot of charisma but he certainly seems to enjoy playing characters who hold back their emotions and are tight lipped. This certainly works for this role as he seems to really embody the man he is portraying.
With his performance, Gosling withholds his emotions so much that when he does let go, it is powerfully moving. It is yet another great performance in an already impressive career. In fact, if he, or the movie, get overlooked come awards season, it would be very disappointing.
Although it’s clear that the movie belongs to the man at the center, Claire Foy, as Janet Armstrong, gives an emotional performance that is a perfect counterpoint to Gosling’s reserved portrayal of Neil Armstrong. She may not be the star but she certainly gives the movie its heart and emotional center.
It might be tempting to dismiss First Man as outdated or old fashioned, and judging by its lackluster performance at the box office, it’s clear that some already have. One of the reasons for that is that some might misconstrue the movie to be yet another celebration of white masculinity. And the specific brand of manliness that First Man seems to promote is archaic.
On the surface it might seem that the movie equates masculinity with the idea that one has to tackle everything on their own because to open up and show vulnerability would be seen as a weakness. But that kind of attitude has evolved into what we might now describe as “toxic masculinity.”
However, it would be a mistake to think that the movie glorifies or deifies Neil Armstrong. By showing his inability to open up to loved ones, First Man isn’t celebrating the idea of manhood as a solitary experience. It is in fact, subtly, renouncing that belief. We aren’t meant to walk away thinking that he was a superman for being able to “control” his emotions.
Instead it is meant to show that once you get past the sanitized and romanticized memories of the hero, you’ll see a flawed individual who struggled like so many of us do. And that isn’t meant as a way to cut him down but instead to celebrate the fact that he was able to take such an important role in such a monumental accomplishment in spite of all that he was struggling with.
Although the movie obviously takes place in the past, it still manages to be relevant and timely. We live in a time when people are constantly talking about recovering a “greatness” that we, as a nation, allegedly lost along the way. And First Man takes place in a decade that most believe America was truly “great.” In fact, many might call this time “the good old days.” It was a time when the American president spoke of a “new frontier.” American ingenuity was going to lead us all into a sci-fi like utopian future. But this nostalgic romanticism is not only a reductive but also a revisionist assessment. It flattens the era and airbrushes its blemishes. This is a natural result of nostalgia. Whenever we look back on anything, we automatically filter it through rose colored glasses and therefore add a level of artifice to the memories. And the movie tackles this in its own way.
One of the most recurring images we see is that of the picturesque cul-de-sacs that the characters live in. These Norman Rockwell like neighborhoods are meant to represent or at least evoke the idea of the bright cheerful, nuclear family. But the picture-perfect family portraits, along with the ideal houses, represent a sanitized version of reality. It speaks to our habit of sweeping the inconvenient realities of life under the carpet and away from the public eye. And that is reflected in the way we choose to look at the past.
The movie focuses on a very triumphant, monumental moment in human history but grief and mourning are, surprisingly, a big part of the story. Throughout the movie, teammates and friends lose their lives at an alarming pace and their losses weigh on the movie and characters.
But it’s the death of Neil’s daughter, Karen that has the biggest impact on him. Karen’s death leaves a shadow that looms over the movie. In fact, it’s arguably one of his biggest motivations. It’s not until Neil reaches the surface of the moon that he can finally let go of her. It almost seems that his pain was so overwhelming that leaving the room to be alone wouldn’t be enough so he had to leave the whole planet behind to finally allow himself to grieve his daughter’s death.
And the fact that the movie portrays the moon landing in such an ordinary way is itself remarkable. The scene could have been an easy way to tug at the hearts of viewers and also dazzle with visual effects. But instead, the movie resists the urge to frame the event like a summer popcorn movie set piece. It Instead, shows it like the culmination of hard work and perseverance in the face of almost constant failure. The scene gives the sense that it’s relief, not exhilaration, that they are feeling while achieving such an amazing feat. And again, the movie pulls off the great trick of both grounding the events and still reminding us how remarkable it all was.
The wonder coexists with all of the baggage and in doing so, the movie manages to inspire all the same by reminding that it was done by regular people working together. It also accomplishes the difficult feat of showing a story that most people are familiar with in a new light and it is able to pay tribute to a hero while still portraying him as an ordinary man.
Felix Quinonez Jr. is an independent comic book creator living in Brooklyn, NY.
His self-published comic books and graphic novels have been sold in stores in NYC and online. He is the co-editor and contributor of a comic book Anthology called Emanata. That book features the work of many other talented creators from all around the country. You can check out his comic books and read more of his writing at https://theneonbulletin.com/.