Savina Petkova on Damien Chazell’s ‘First Man’ (2018)
For a full-blown mission film, Damien Chazelle’s fourth feature First Man strikes as a gripping representation of human strength and perseverance. The anthropocentric perspective of the title is gradually dissolved, as individual emotional fragility melts with the collective instance risk in a pilots life. Alas, First Man is not praise for the American civil servant, it instead sheds light on the harsh reality of trauma and loss, juxtaposed with the dreaminess of La La Land (2016). Ryan Gosling has come a long way to play the introverted, stubborn and taciturn Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon. Armstrong may be the “giant leap” symbol of humanity, yet his cinematic portrayal here remains down-to-earth, especially in a long take in which Gosling weeps for what seems like an eternity.
The film’s opening sequence sets the tone with screeching, squealing machinery—a malfunctioning aeroplane—which has us gripping the edge of our seat in the first few screen minutes. A close call to death, young pilot Neil (Gosling) makes an unlikely survival and conquers the dangers of system failures. Right at its beginning, First Man negates the all-powerful bond between man and machine, the iconic duo that made space missions possible. The NASA rockets of the 1960s are portrayed with such distrust, that it undermines any attempt of reading it as self-celebratory. Being self-aware in that sense saves it from being a two-hour praise of an American hero. In fact, we never even see Armstrong placing the US flag on the moon surface, and a voice is given to protesters, questioning the government funds supporting NASA projects. The film achieves a political equilibrium and does not succumb to either nationalistic inclinations or condemnations.
The tension between man and technology is complemented by the cinematography of space missions: exceptionally confined in interiors (the small cubicle of the pilots), intensely claustrophobic and shot with handheld shaky camera, we get to see the men’s blood, sweat, and tears, as well as the brilliant image of the horizon, reflected on their helmets. The aesthetics of roughness are counter-pinned by such tender details – eye-level aligning with the Earth’s horizon from afar; Neil’s hesitation to step on the Moon surface; a flashback of stroking his daughter’s hair before she died. The high-and-low, inner-and-outer antinomy is neutralised in a philosophical way: a person is the middle ground between Heaven and Earth. A testament to man’s progress in the Enlightenment tradition but a humble reminder of his place in the unknown cosmos.
First Man is structured as a slowly-accumulating process with numerous ecstatic or thrilling punctures. A causal build-up brings together stages of the Gemini and Apollo operations, both of which are aiming at the Moon. Although the infamous Moon sequence takes place in the last 20 minutes of the film, all of the missions unfold with such intensity, which strengthens the emotional snare and fleshes out Neil Armstrong as a product of his own suffering and sublimation. Weaved out of defence mechanisms, he is supported and urged to partake in family life by his wife Janet, masterfully played by Claire Foy.
Janet is the reality check for wandering and vain minds, her words are harsh as she calls the NASA executives “a bunch of boys who don’t have anything under control”. No glamorisation needed when the truth is called out. First Man remains sceptical of positing political valorisation of its protagonist, while nevertheless adoring his character and humanity. It is rare that a biopic protagonist wears such a thorny crown, heroic in his imperfection.
In its rawness, First Man finds delight in small moments of daily magic. In a whimsical reminder of La La Land’s frivolous portrayal of human weakness and incompatibility, we laugh along with the classification of space flight theory as “kinda neat” in a late dinner conversation, and refer to the Apollo mission as an “adventure”. Such diminutives reveal a sense of wonder towards the weighty serious life, and a dreamer temperament, which is part of the astronaut survival kit, it seems. Long sequences, flooded with natural light, sun-flares, and bursting colours bathe the Armstrong family of four, while the boys wrestle in the garden, their parents laughing and running around.
Such visual style bears similarity to The Tree of Life (2011) and the camera is insistently Malickian, which is to say: it balances earth and wonder, enchantment even in a turbulent present, at the cusp of great discoveries. If we ever feel like humanity has become too big for this world, we should remember the way in which humble and hesitant Armstrong set his foot on the Moon with respect, a point of gentle contact that only an admirer would do to his loved one.
Placed in space odysseys in the long tradition of (Kubrick, of course), Solaris (1971), Apollo 13 (1995), Gravity (2013), Interstellar (2014) and so on, First Man strikes a thin balance between admiration and devalourisation of an iconic hero, while providing a visually thrilling ride. Its lack of long shots to scale down a small spacecraft in comparison to the enormous Moon or Earth, as well as its close up intimate camera, both undermine human supremacy and pose questions about the human condition.
A gentle yet merciless Chazelle delivers a profound meditation on the place of humanity in a time when the shores are overflowing with Anthropocene films. In the wave of environmental anti-humanism, condemning human impact on Earth, exemplified recently by First Reformed (2018), First Man poses a much more forgiving sentence, bringing back gentle heroism in the image of Homo Astronauticus.
First Man screened as part of Film Fest Gent and will be exhibited in theatres 12th October 2018.