Damien Chazelle’s latest film is a study of Neil Armstrong in the years before the moon landing, but it’s not quite accurate to describe it as a biopic, since there is very little here that feels personal or specific to Armstrong himself. Instead, Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, is presented as the apotheosis of a certain of staunch, stoic, mid-century masculinity that valued psychological stamina above all else – the kind of stamina, the film suggests, that was necessary for a trip to the moon to be conceptualised and executed in the first place. What little character Armstrong is granted is established by the loss of his daughter Karen in the opening scenes, yet that simply serves to estrange him from his wife Janet, played by Claire Foy, their circle of friends, and even his colleagues, since the film is remarkably free of even the professional rapport you often see in pared-back, procedural exercises of this kind. In other words, Armstrong’s character is established in terms of absence, a paternal void, and the stamina he develops to contend with it – stamina that not only equips him for the moon mission itself, but the challenges leading up to it, as Chazelle dramatizes the mistakes, contingencies and casualties of the Apollo 1 program in quite a powerful and compelling way. From the very outset, it’s clear, then, that First Man is keen to dispel any idea of Armstrong being a mere passenger to the space missions, taking us through the various physical and psychological hurdles he had to overcome to qualify at all, even as it never quite grants him the subjectivity that we normally see in a regular biopic.
The result is possibly the most embodied film about historical space exploration committed to the big screen, as Chazelle keeps his camera close to Armstrong’s body at all times, or close to whatever object Armstrong is focusing upon, as if the best way to preserve his notorious sense of privacy were to refrain from opening up too much space for scrutiny around him, or avoid setting him against his background in any stabilizing or consistent way. That makes for a real synergy between the camera and Armstrong’s limited mobility and perception when he is suited up, but also suggests that he never quite leaves the perspective of his astronaut suit at any moment during these critical years, as the outside world, and everything beyond his immediate purview, is continually muffled and relegated to the fringes of the frame. Mentally, there is always a part of him that is poised just above the atmosphere, already in outer space, as the ideals of mid-century masculinity and the job requirements of being an astronaut converge on the two key features that define his sensibility: focusing on immediate goals, and maintaining his self-composure above all else.
For that reason, the strongest parts of the film come when Armstrong is faced with moments of disorientation and sensory overload – moments when his aspirations teeter on the very precipice of self-destruction, and require the utmost control and focus to bring them back into focus. These nearly always occur in and around the various space crafts that are tested during the Apollo 1 and Apollo 11 projects, and they feel even more viscerally present for the fact that Chazelle tends to omit any extensive exposition around the preparation procedures, simply shifting us and Armstrong from one high-risk encounter to the next. Similarly, Chazelle foregrounds the materiality of nuts, bolts, gauges, dials, nodules and all the other mid-century technological interfaces that look so different from how we might imagine space travel in our own era, or the future – details that make the ships seem both sturdier and more vulnerable from the perspective of our digital present, and the sleek architecture we’re used to seeing in more contemporary depictions of outer space travel.
While the moon landing itself is ostensibly the focus of the film, the preliminary preparations therefore tend to be more spectacular, especially the launch of Gemini 8, and Armstrong’s efforts to correct the vessel after it started to rotate uncontrollably in orbit. The launch, in particular, is incredible, as Chazelle chooses to shoot the entire process inside, in real time, detailing the five minutes that elapse between the surface of the earth and outer space, and between gravity and zero gravity, from the perspective of the astronauts, condensing the panoramic perspective typical of space sequences of this kind to the shifts in light and texture across the small window visible from their seats. In fact, at no point does First Man ever open up the spaceships that it depicts to the expansive, floating spatiality of regular space exploration films – instead, the astronauts are nearly always boxed in and subjected to the whims and vibrations of the machine operating around them, propped up in a prone and awkward position that captures the discomfort of space flight more than any other film I’ve seen. As much as they might open up new horizons, the sheer fact of the space vessels bring with them a perpetual possibility of entrapment, a latent and continuous threat of destruction, that’s crystallised by the three astronauts killed when the Apollo 1 explodes on ground – an event that ramifies in a peculiarly eloquent way here, just because it takes all of the fears latent in the camera’ address to their aesthetic conclusion.
Indeed, so effectively does Chazelle capture the claustrophobia and containment of outer space that by the time Armstrong arrives at the surface of the moon the effect is strangely flat and drab. Rather than a new world, the lunar landscape seems every bit as constrictive as the hull of the rocket itself, while the lack of sound and reduced gravity just seems to cocoon Armstrong even further within his own world, and his grief, culminating with him depositing his daughter Karen’s bracelet in a crater – an act that not only overshadows his first words on the moon, but entirely eclipses any depiction of him planting the flag. Conversely, the cosmicity of outer space is transplanted back onto suburbia, where Chazelle’s astronaut cinematography situates Armstrong within the looming voids that he seems to be reaching for with space exploration, especially as the film doesn’t present any connective tissue between suburbia and outer space. Time and again, we cut from dark backyards, streets and living rooms – the syntax of suburbia – to the interior of space vehicles, as the Cape Kennedy and Houston bases, and the entire preparatory infrastructure, is more or less elided from Chazelle’s vision, and from Armstrong’s own vision of himself.
No doubt, that gives First Man an epic sprawl and a visionary register at times. Yet it also makes it feel as if the ultimate subject of the film is the great cosmic loneliness of the white American patriarch, as Armstrong is presented striving for a suburban cosmicity that not even outer space can satiate. With Armstrong depositing a symbol of paternal absence on the moon, the moon trip becomes a way of sequestering his memory of what he could have been as a father, before returning to a denuded Earth, one in which his failure to live up to his own fatherly expectations not only plays as tragedy, but a tragedy that eclipses any other emotion in the film so categorically that it eventually plays as kitsch. And it’s exactly that kitsch that animates Trumpean nostalgia for a lost world of American authority, with the result that First Man finally feels more about the present, and bolstering a form of nostalgia that has been particularly engaging to the present, than really engaging with the past. Yet Chazelle doesn’t quite seem able to accept that fact either, as a series of half-hearted liberal gestures try to make peace with this conservative kernel, from an early cautionary comment about the value of the atmosphere that is clearly aimed at global warming, to a token shot of protestors objecting to the space program at Cape Kennedy, to a news broadcast about Apollo 11 that anticipates the wording of Reagan’s Challenger speech, to a pair of bizarre closing references to Kennedy that try to retrofit the film’s Republican affect as an apotheosis of 60s liberalism, and JFK’s social program in particular.
Still, despite these half-hearted gestures – or even because of them – the film can never really shake free of its Republican core, which means that it can never seriously engage with the biggest question it raises: why visit the moon in the first place? As more and more astronauts die, and Armstrong’s motivations are presented as more and more solipsistic, that question starts to feel pretty urgent, as the spectacle of stoic masculinity – once so integral to the American psyche – simply fails to ramify here as a very convincing reason for investing so much human life and material infrastructure into this kind of project. Unable to avoid that sense of redundancy, but also unable to fully acknowledge it either, First Man therefore occupies a strange and dissonant position that Daniel Nye, in American Technological Sublime, attributed to the spectacle of moon exploration itself. In the wake of nuclear catastrophe, Nye argued, technological sublimity became impossible, since technology had now reached a point at which it could utterly annihilate the spectatorial position required for sublimity to be meaningful in the first place. In an effort to recoup that sense of technological spectacle, Nye suggested, the United States turned to space exploration – and it is just that sense of space exploration as a compensatory spectacle that is so pronounced here, in a film that strives to be sublime, and should be sublime, but somehow isn’t, suffused instead with the same aesthetic conservatism, and the same anxieties about white male potency, that made La La Land so dissonant and deadening too.