Like many children growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I wanted to be an astronaut. The idea of traveling into space – viewing Earth from thousands or even millions of miles away – seemed entrancing.
I’m too old now for space travel, and I wouldn’t be able to go anyway. It’s too hard – on the body, and perhaps on the soul as well.
Which brings me to “First Man,” which should have been titled “Unknowable.” Or “The Space Between.” Or “Loneliest Man.”
This is not meant as a knock. Far from it. I really enjoyed “First Man.” But Damien Chazelle has made a surprisingly existential film about Neil Armstrong and his passage to being the first man on the moon. It’s a Terrence Malick film with Hollywood derring-do.
The performances – Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, Claire Foy as his wife Janet, Jason Clarke as fellow astronaut Ed White – are uniformly excellent. But despite the frequent close-ups and documentary-style shaky-cam (Damien, would it have killed you to use a tripod or dolly track once in awhile?), you never quite connect emotionally with anyone, save perhaps Kyle Chandler’s Deke Slayton or anybody in a scene glaring at the incorrigibly blunt Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll). (I once interviewed Aldrin, and though he was engaging, it was obvious from the outset that he doesn’t suffer fools and doesn’t much care for niceties.)
That, I believe, is the point. Armstrong, in particular, is a closed-off man, particularly after he loses his young daughter to cancer at the beginning of the film. Years later, even when he’s trying to reassure his two sons about the Apollo 11 moon mission – a request his wife demands of him while he tries to sneak out of the house — he speaks in the flat, you-can’t-be-100-percent-certain cadences of the engineer, keeping a lid on the depths of his emotions.
Still, despite the restraint, “First Man” isn’t boring. The scenes in which Armstrong goes into space are powerful exhibitions of pure moviemaking. You hear the groan of the bolts, the click of the dials, the rumble of the enormous engines underneath the seemingly helpless astronauts. (I was reminded over and over of John Glenn’s apocryphal line, “As I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind — every part of this rocket was supplied by the lowest bidder.”) Chuck Yeager had derisively called the NASA men “spam in a can,” but the brilliance of Armstrong (and others) belies Yeager’s belief. He continually maintains control when his machines fail. Indeed, when it came time to land on the moon, Armstrong took over from the overloaded computers and did it manually.
Chazelle is well aware of the film he’s trying to make – one in which his hero is trapped amid the dreadful rattles of a claustrophobic cockpit, whether it’s his machine or his head, and grittily overcomes. He’s also aware of the films he’s trying to evoke. I particularly liked one of the many nods to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” (my favorite film), in which Armstrong – having returned to our alien planet – is shown to a utilitarian bedroom almost devoid of furniture. It’s a nice wink to “2001’s” David Bowman lost in his baroque suite at the end of the film.
“First Man” is also the story of Armstrong and Janet, and it’s a story told more in the silences than the dialogue. In some ways, the home scenes are harder to take than the space-shot scenes: theirs is a marriage of two people who obviously respect each other, love each other, but find it hard to connect.
Tragedy doesn’t help her yearning. Her child is dead, her friends become widows, her husband risks his life. You see her willful denial of bad news in every cigarette she chain-smokes and every attempt she makes to reach for her husband, even when he’s behind a window in quarantine.
I liked “First Man.” Still, I’m a little shocked that its studio expected it to be a box-office hit. (This ain’t the ‘70s.) Anyone who expects to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” and see Armstrong and Aldrin fire Roman candles over the American flag should go see something by Michael Bay. The space program of “First Man” is, as the speech from John F. Kennedy declared, “hard.” Billions of dollars were spent and many people died to blaze the trail. It was a lonely road.
Indeed, if “First Man” reminds me of any film, it’s “All Is Lost,” the underrated J.C. Chandor’s quiet, thoughtful film with Robert Redford as a Job alone at sea. Now, I loved “All Is Lost”; I think it’s is one of the best, most moving films of the 21st century. I can’t say I was equally moved by “First Man,” but it did make me think about the vast distances between heaven and earth, the stars and ourselves – and the vast distances between a man and a woman separated by a pane of glass. Only connect? I may not be headed into space, but I’m grateful to take that journey.