Review: ‘First Man’

Image result for first man
Image from DreamWorks.

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.

‘It’s catching, isn’t it?’

There’s a scene in the movie “Time After Time” in which H.G. Wells, having tracked the time-traveling Jack the Ripper from 1893 London to 1979 San Francisco, tells him that they “don’t belong here.”

The Ripper, who in Victorian England is a doctor named John Leslie Stevenson, scoffs the way only the perfectly villainous actor David Warner could. He turns on the television and shows Wells horror after horror: terrorist attacks, violent cartoons, bloodied protesters.

We don’t belong here? On the contrary, Herbert. I belong here completely and utterly,” he responds. “I’m home.”

Then Stevenson dismisses Wells’ utopian fantasies of the future. Malcolm McDowell’s Wells slaps him in the face. Stevenson is unmoved.

“It’s catching, isn’t it?” he says. “Violence.”

I’ve been thinking about that scene a lot. I feel that like Wells, who crossed over from a hopeful era to a pessimistic one, I’ve gone from one kind of America — one that struggled, one that had its awful moments, but one that attempted to live up to certain ideals and become a more perfect union — to another, one that’s set its worst impulses free, thanks to the pro wrestling, all-or-nothing chaos twitted down from on high.

You know I’m talking about President Reality Show.

It’s not just the surface behavior — the insulting tweets, the “people are saying” falsehoods, the sense that he’s riding a wave that will wreck those below him while he sails on obliviously — but the overall lack of shame that comes with it. It’s an all-or-nothing, brutish Hobbesian world, and he’s inured to any criticism. That’s just “fake news.”

And maybe he’s right. Maybe this is, at bottom, a corrupt, remorseless Hobbesian world. Maybe honesty and trust and compassion is just the thin veneer many of us suspected, but didn’t want to admit, because who wants to live in a world like that?

Apparently, many of us do.

We’re seeing it all over the globe, whether it’s Brexit or Hungary or Brazil or Venezuela or Myanmar. (Was it only 27 years ago that Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize? Now her country, in which she’s a leader, is persecuting journalists and the Rohingya.) We see it in Trump’s lack of condemnation over the possible murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the “on both sides”-ism of Charlottesville.

You think our country’s so innocent? (No, but we used to at least tell ourselves to do better.)

It’s anger spilled over, and nobody wants to turn the other cheek. (I think some prophet, who allegedly has hundreds of millions of followers, said that.)

It’s not like I have any answers to this anger. It simply makes me sad. It will probably get worse before it gets better. I was just reading the profile of Newt Gingrich in the new Atlantic, and the one-time bomb-throwing congressman still believes in a zero-sum world.

Twenty-five years after engineering the Republican Revolution, Gingrich can draw a direct line from his work in Congress to the upheaval now taking place around the globe. But as he surveys the wreckage of the modern political landscape, he is not regretful. He’s gleeful.

“The old order is dying,” he tells me. “Almost everywhere you have freedom, you have a very deep discontent that the system isn’t working.”

And that’s a good thing? I ask.

“It’s essential,” he says, “if you want Western civilization to survive.”

Lord knows there are many elements of “the system” that I hate as well. (Such as bomb-throwing former congressmen making $75,000 a speech for talking about the demise of the old order, presumably while talking to the old order.) But Gingrich, student of history he is, should know that revolutions seldom work out the way the revolutionaries plan. For one thing, when you rid the culture of trust, it becomes every person for him- or herself … which means that the Robespierres and Marats end up just as dead as the order they destroyed. For another, revolutions are usually ugly: wars, civil and otherwise, are seldom bloodless. Eventually, everybody’s exhausted and bitter and bereft; mothers generally don’t like to send their sons and daughters off to die, even if they’re convinced the cause is just. (Not that Newt, who famously sidestepped service in the Vietnam War, cares about that.)

So it might not be Western civilization that survives. It might not be any civilization that survives. That OK with you, Newt?

Listen: For all of my cynicism, I try to believe in a positive future. (As George Carlin put it, Scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.) Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the sheer torrent of bad behavior, bad news or plain old stupidity makes me despair. Now that we’ve entered the downward spiral, my guess is we’ll follow it down until it’s interrupted by some cataclysm. I imagine John Leslie Stevenson would appreciate that.

But hey: Are you not entertained?

Review: ‘Twilight of the Gods’ by Steven Hyden

Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic RockTwilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock by Steven Hyden

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was Steven Hyden, once upon a time.

I, too, spent my teen and college years reading collections of pop/rock criticism (Dave Marsh! Lester Bangs! Greil Marcus! Ed Ward!) and loving classic rock before being able to move forward to the more adventurous stuff. I, too, noticed that sometime in the mid/late 1980s rock seemed to lose itself in self-inflicted nostalgia, with the old standard-bearers suddenly unsure of what to do with themselves and the new folks making carbon copies of the already-carbon copied stuff of the previous generation and the major record labels trying to milk every dime from the pap, as they always did.

And I, too, grasped that the cycle kept going, to the point that suddenly every Rolling Stones or Who tour felt more like a large-print version of those PBS specials that reunited the great folk artists of the ‘60s. I mean, didn’t this stuff once MATTER?

However, as I gleefully read Hyden’s “Twilight of the Gods” – in which he breaks down classic rock into its trends, clichés, cultural baggage and modern perceptions – I thought of two ways in which Hyden and I are different. For one, I’ve got 12 years on him, so I’m old enough to remember when “classic rock” was simply called “rock”: when “Hungry Heart” first came on the radio, when everybody was buying “Rumours,” when “Hi Infidelity” inexplicably topped the album charts.

And second, he’s a much better writer than I am.

“Twilight of the Gods” is part memoir, part pop history, on how the titans of rock music (or what was called rock music, since some of its lower-tier stars didn’t rock very hard) found their early works and images encased in amber while time and the music business changed all around them. Hyden has what are called “big ears” – he’s cheerfully open to pretty much anything, including execrable material like Styx’s “Kilroy Was Here” – but he also has a razor-sharp wit about the business and himself.

For example, in attempting to determine classic rock’s defining artist, he runs through the Who (too eccentric), Led Zeppelin (too mystique-y), Bruce Springsteen (too earnest) and Black Sabbath (too dark), before settling on the unfortunately obvious: the Eagles. (Whoa, sorry, Don and Glenn: Eagles. No “The,” as I once read in a Frey interview in which he was adamant that the band’s name was simply “Eagles.” Based on old “American Top 40” countdowns, Casey Kasem obviously got the message.)

Hyden points to the storytelling perfection of the documentary “History of the Eagles” (who let that “the” in there?) to make his point. “(It’s) a … story about craven capitalists who labored for years over spotless, perfectly constructed pop-rock songs, and then played them forever on the road, even after they openly expressed their intense dislike for one another,” he writes. “If you’re looking for a three-hour summation of how classic rock went from the pre-corporate folkie idealism of the late sixties to nostalgic late capitalism by the end of the nineties, ‘History of the Eagles’ is the best lesson you’re going to find.”

And that lesson is told and retold through “Twilight of the Gods”: how many artists are now worth more dead than alive, or how streaming services essentially killed the album as an artistic statement, or how the list of classic albums has been more or less frozen since about 1990. At one point, he reprints the top 20 albums of all time from Rolling Stone’s 1987 20th-anniversary issue. Many of the entries – “Sgt. Pepper,” “Exile on Main Street,” “Astral Weeks,” “Blood on the Tracks” – could still be found on such a list 30 years later. Hell, I’ve got a book called “Rock Critics’ Choice: The Top 200 Albums” from 1978 and the list was pretty much the same then.

Another lesson: What’s now accepted was once dangerous, or least perceived to be dangerous. The truth is, it was more a way to piss off your parents, and these days – given that the parents (and grandparents!) were once the ones doing the pissing off, with their hair and their clothes and their copies of “Kiss Alive II” – if anything, they’ll lend their kids their copies of “The Velvet Underground and Nico” and ask them what they think of “Venus in Furs” before their offspring have moved on from the Woggles. (Update: I meant the Wiggles, the colorful Australian kids’ band. The Woggles are a neo-garage band.)

So, does it still matter?

In recent years, I’ve thought it was a good thing the Beatles broke up when they did, because they never had to go through this crap. Indeed, Mark Shipper’s 1978 novel “Paperback Writer,” one of my favorite books, offers an alternative history of what would have happened had they gotten back together. It wasn’t pleasant.

However, you’re never more emotionally at pop music’s mercy as to when you first hear it as a teenager, and the fact that it still has power decades later is worth something. “Twilight of the Gods” notes that the power of classic rock is in the community it fosters, whether it’s between you and your friends, or you and the groove.

“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,” Noel Coward once wrote, to which a respondent to a bad-song survey added, “The truth of the matter is that even the most hated of the hated songs will touch at least one little fiber of your beating heart, and make you yearn.”

Or, as Hyden puts it, “What can I say? I still believe.”

May classic rock always touch a few souls, and may Steven Hyden still be writing when a “Twilight of the Gods Golden Anniversary Special Edition” is due out. Lester Bangs is smiling.

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