Niel Armstrong passed away August 25th, 2012 from complications associated with a recent bypass surgery. He was 82 years old. The end of the life of a national hero, combined with the capabilities of twenty-teens CGI, suggested that a film treatment of his biography would be in order.
An official biography of Armstrong had been published in 2005. The book, titled First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, is the work of James R. Hansen. Even before the book was published, Clint Eastwood picked up the film rights to it but development languished until after Armstrong’s death. Last year, the project came to fruition with Whiplash creator Damien Chazelle directing.
First Man looks nice and has a few things that it does uniquely well. When it comes to the flights and launches, it mostly chooses to focus on the experience of the astronaut; of Armstrong himself. Claustrophobic close-ups with tense shaking and inexplicable noises are how we experience the Gemini 8 launch or a X-15 aircraft flight. The film cheats a little and shows the Apollo 11 launch via the traditional viewpoints; the igniting of the engine, the launch from a distance, and (of course) the iconic shot of the second-stage ignition and the tumbling away of the fiery engine-skirt fairing. I guess audiences need to see that, though, so I don’t blame them for the inconsistency.
Unfortunately, they decided to go with a maudlin, depressing tone throughout the film. First off, while I will acknowledge that Armstrong had a reputation for a reserved personality, I have to suspect that has a lot to do with being a typical engineering personality in a world of fighter pilots; an introvert among extroverts. Here, Ryan Gosling seems to reprise his cypher/psychopath performance* from Drive to portray Armstrong as deeply inscrutable. This is a strange choice in a film where we experience the space program with and alongside Armstrong; you’d think we’d want to identify with him a little better.
A second point, I’m hesitant to make having no familiarity with the source material, but I’ll do it anyway. Listen, I understand that the race to the moon was fraught with tragedy and part of the success was continuing to do one’s job, despite the loss and despite the doubts. I’m going to assume that this is what we’re going for in First Man. Even still, it couldn’t have been all tragedy. There was tragedy, and boredom, and elation, and loss, and humor, and pride in achievement. There seems no attempt at balance; Gosling suffers loss, Gosling is sad, Gosling soldiers on. I have to assume that the creators of this film figure we’ve seen The Right Stuff and we’ve seen Apollo 13 and we’ve had enough of the American Hero narrative. They figure we’re ready for some counterpoint. Maybe we are. Instead, I felt like I was being told Armstrong only went to the moon to drop off a baby’s bracelet.
In a bit of déjà vu, my end-analysis is similar to what I wrote a couple of weeks’ back. It’s not that this is a bad movie. It’s as good as some and, probably, better than most. It just seems to fail to live up to its potential. The film did turn a profit, even despite a bit of backlash against the decision to leave out the scene where Armstrong plants an American flag. The ruckus even drew in Donald Trump, who stated he wouldn’t watch this film**. Indeed the film became political, with both the left and the right attacking it for its supposedly partisan messaging. That, too, is a sad sign of our times. I’m willing to believe that this was simply an artistic vision that lands off its mark.
*I’ve seen Gosling in other roles and its not a simple as him playing to type. This must have been a deliberate approach.
**That may have helped more than hurt.