now playing: first man
The brief appearance of Ryan Gosling’s penetrating blue eyes and husky voice sparked a flurry of gasps and exclamations throughout the Avon Cinema. In light of the moon landing’s upcoming 50th anniversary, one would question whether most of the audience truly cared about the milestone or saw the movie as another opportunity to be enraptured by Gosling’s “bedroom eyes.” Whatever the viewer’s reason, the movie’s opening throws them headfirst into the harsh perspective of engineer and astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling). We are trapped in a confined space until the reflection from Armstrong’s visor unveils a tranquil stratosphere of blues and violets—a moment of peace and beauty that answers the question of why Armstrong does what he does.
On land, we see Armstrong’s family life and meet his daughter, Karen, who has a brain tumor. Though a man of immense intelligence, Armstrong cannot figure out how to save her. He relies on calculation and analysis, but to no avail. We witness intimate moments between them before a final image of his finger cradling her hair cuts abruptly to her funeral. Director Damien Chazelle jumps between such moments of elation and sorrow throughout, perhaps emulating the highs and lows of the astronauts’ lives and their unstable closeness to death. There were numerous deaths on NASA’s long journey to the moon, including astronauts who had become Armstrong’s friends, such as the caring Ed White (Jason Clarke). Due to explosions and technical difficulties in the spacecrafts, every “practice run” before the landing failed. Along with Armstrong, we are reminded of the looming presence of death—a reality often neglected in narratives about the Apollo 11 mission.
Armstrong’s stoicism solidifies as a result of these deaths. This sternness is a point of tension in his relationships, though Gosling plays it equally for laughs. Armstrong’s reactions to successes are often hilariously dismissive and bland, such as when he gets chosen to be the head pilot (aka, the first person to walk on the moon) and responds with a brief “Okay.” Although it is hard to discern whether Armstrong has an ill-sense of humor or is just serious, we nevertheless develop sympathy for him due to his daughter’s passing. Armstrong sees Karen often, Chazelle’s way of reminding us that Armstrong is hurt.
Through Janet Shearon, his wife at the time, we are offered more insight into Armstrong. But she stands well on her own, as Claire Foy delivers a powerful performance as a strong, takes-no-bullshit matriarch. Shearon is depicted as a comfortable member of the Astronaut Wives club, a group of era-conforming housewives that chat poolside about their kids and the weather, but she represents more than that. She battles her daughter’s death, motherhood, and a lonely marriage to a neglectful husband whose death she anticipates. Shearon softens Armstrong’s tight, stuffy disposition while wrangling him back to earth and his fatherly responsibilities. Scenes of the couple are often adorned in delicate shades of brown and filmed through an inside-outside lens, keeping the viewer a distant observer of the Armstrongs’ almost intangible chemistry and understanding of one another. The couple is often staged in dark spaces, with one light lit on Sharon’s side, perhaps to signify her role as “the light” of Armstrong’s life. As corny as that sounds, I felt myself relating more with Janet and appreciating her presence as a source of balance. I also awaited her fiery moments, which echoed a central question: Was the moon landing truly worth it?
There are moments where the film loses its effectiveness. Chazelle falters in moments that construct the historical context of the moon landing. It is set during the Cold War, the “who has got bigger muscles” contest between the United States and Soviet Union that devastated various countries, mainly affecting people of color. The film showed the leftist protests of the Vietnam War, exemplified by Gil Scott-Heron’s song “Whitey on the Moon.” This was also a rare time when nonwhite people were shown in the film, as scenes of the control center at NASA were overwhelmingly white. True, during this era, the known leaders of NASA (and of everything) were white men; it would be unrealistic to ignore this truth. However, the film would have been more powerful if Chazelle expanded on the Cold War and stressed the importance of protests. With prominence given to the moon landing, the protests came off as background noise, as if the film was saying, “Yeah, people were dying in America, but look how hard it was to land on the moon!”
Finally, amidst jumbled space talk, we arrive on the moon. The CGI is stunning and resembles real images. The cinematography of the film was dazzling from its purposeful lighting to visuals of the stratospheres to the fluid movements of the camera. I almost didn’t notice that Armstrong was never depicted putting the American flag on the moon, the iconic image that many critics pointed out Chazelle missed. I would argue that the film symbolizes American pride adequately enough that the flag was not missed; Chazelle himself said that his focus was on the unknown moments of the landing and Neil Armstrong. Overall, this movie completed its purpose and a bit more, showing us who Neil Armstrong was and how America ended up on the moon, an integral moment in American history. Even in its 2 hours and 21 minutes running time, the film could have focused not only on the visual stunningness and difficulty of the moon landing but the perspectives of the people most affected by it.