A Second Look at ‘First Man’

First Man (2018)
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy


Critics seemed confused by Damien Chazelle’s most recent film, which will be out on DVD January 22. They seemed confused by its title. And perhaps it is a confusing title; it seems to be a deliberately provocative one. Yet if the film itself is arguably less provocative than the title suggests, it has still been terrifically misunderstood and misrepresented. Between Christine Smallwood’s review in the New York Review of Books and Richard Brody’s piece for the New Yorker, American film commentators seemed determined to prove that they can’t be bothered to take their jobs seriously. Unwilling to wrestle with the film on its own terms, First Man’s critics were determined to argue with the politics and psychology of its creator.

On one hand, this was an almost understandable response to a film so heavily focused on the experience of an individual. As a drama that purports to relate the story of Neil Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) involvement with the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, First Man is both more existentially focused and less concerned with the historical content of its subject matter than the typical biopic. For all the excitement of spaceflight, most of First Man takes place on earth. There we watch Neil and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) lose their two-year-old daughter Karen to a tumor in her brain. We watch as Neil throws himself into his work with NASA—as much out of a passion for space as to escape his grief. We watch as Neil’s wife and friends try to reach him, only to be kept at an emotional arm’s length. Meanwhile, Neil and his fellow astronauts commit themselves to the trying work of getting to the moon. I hope it will not be a spoiler to say that they eventually make it.

In her review of the film, Christine Smallwood made the startling claim that “First Man’s idea of greatness does not inhere in the space race or even the pursuit of knowledge or science, but rather in its hero’s stoicism.” Richard Brody similarly argued that “Neil’s seemingly selfish emotional remove is presented in the film as emblematic of and inseparable from his own stoic approach to danger, his own cool self-mastery in harrowing situations that would flummox and frazzle more expressive and less controlled people.” Both Smallwood and Brody claim that Chazelle considers this character flaw in Armstrong to be a virtue.

Much of the film is devoted to depicting just how hard it is for Neil, who flies so high as a pilot, to experience depth in his relationships. He struggles to be a good husband and a good father. He is unable to talk candidly with his closest friend, fellow astronaut Ed White (Jason Clarke), who was killed in an accident while training for the Apollo I mission. But to show Neil suffering silently through the anguish caused by the deaths of his daughter and friends does not suggest that his stoicism is a strength. Neil’s strengths are shown to lie in other areas. It is his intellect, problem-solving ability, and determination, despite the doubts of others, that enable him to do great things. None of the other astronauts are shown to be worse at their jobs because of healthy relationships with their families and friends. How can First Man’s critics so confidently claim that Chazelle is glorifying Armstrong’s emotional distance?

The Unaffected Man

Many reviews have complained that while the relationship between Neil and Janet Armstrong is toxic, Chazelle understands Neil’s difficulties in his marriage as products of his professional strengths. Brody writes: “It’s another of Chazelle’s enduring themes—the man whose passionate devotion to his work makes the woman who doesn’t share his passion unhappy and dooms the relationship. It’s the story of his first feature, the low-budget musical ‘Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,’ and of ‘Whiplash’ and ‘La La Land.’” I didn’t much care for La La Land either, but I was at least paying enough attention to notice that Emma Stone’s and Ryan Gosling’s characters break up not, as Brody bizarrely claims, because Sebastian (Gosling) is passionately devoted to his work and Mia (Stone) isn’t, but because Sebastian has given up on his passion and blames Mia for reminding him that he is settling for something trivial instead.

In Chazelle’s 2014 film, Whiplash, the idea that Andrew Neiman’s relational distance is a virtue is made problematic by his manifestly naive rejection of relationships both platonic and romantic. He aspires to please and emulate an aggressively antisocial man in order to be great—a move the film does not simply endorse but takes seriously in its complexity. The choice by some critics to suggest that Chazelle sees stoicism or relational frigidity in the pursuit of greatness as unambiguously positive betrays an unwillingness to really talk about his movies. They are making their own arguments on the subject and using Chazelle’s movies as opportunities to express them. In Last Man, Janet Armstrong is a hero in her own right. Throughout the film she tries desperately to call Neil to be a husband and a father, and to be emotionally available to their children and to her. Neil Armstrong is shown to be a stoic, and the cost is real—not merely compensated for by his heroism. The film’s last shot testifies to this.

In the final scene, Neil and Janet Armstrong sit in an observation room, separated by a wall of glass. Neil has just returned from the moon and is in quarantine. They sit, staring at each other, their emotions obfuscated by internal ambivalence. Unable to physically reconcile, they are left trying to understand what the moment means, what can or should be communicated—and how. Neil reaches out and places his hand on the glass, where Janet meets him. Both Brody and Smallwood cast this as a moment of the film exposing its greatest flaw. Neil’s heroic stoicism renders him icily unavailable—and this is bad, say the critics. To this, I can only respond, “Of course.” What point do they imagine Chazelle thinks he is making with this scene? There is something amiss in viewing this scene as an uncomplicated glorification of Neil’s emotional remove.

In the end, Chazelle’s suggestions about greatness are uncontroversial. That individuals who grow fixated on improbable goals and are determined to do what others suggest is impossible (or prohibitively difficult) also exhibit antisocial behaviors is not surprising. Human history testifies to this again and again: philosophy is rife with relationally unhappy individuals. The highest performing musicians, athletes, and artists overwhelmingly struggle to relate to others. This is not to say that human greatness requires us to sacrifice our relational humanity. It is an observation of a phenomenon. That Chazelle is explicit about this phenomenon, which is also the theme of Whiplash, does not amount to a glorification or defense of stoicism or antisocial behavior. To view his films as explicit pro/con arguments about a way of being in the world is to ignore these films’ complexities.

Reading Politics into Everything

In his New Yorker review of First Man, Brody claims that the scenes in the film that depict anti-NASA protestors, whom Helen Andrews has written about for Modern Age, represented a moment of stark condescension. “With this sequence,” Brody asserts, “Chazelle openly mocks people who thought that the moon money was spent foolishly.” Here Brody opts for the least charitable interpretation. The director’s disposition toward those who questioned whether the moon mission constituted a public good is unclear. No filming technique or narrative commentary makes explicit a sense of derision toward either the reenacted protests or the real people present in archival footage of Americans being interviewed about the moon mission.

True, First Man does not spend much time presenting anti-NASA sentiment, but given the amount of film allotted for illustrating its presence, it is hard to imagine a more neutral framing. What Brody really means is that there should have been more screen time or narrative energy devoted to protests against the Apollo program. In other words, Brody thinks the movie is failing a political or philosophical test. That argument is always available, but Brody takes his conclusions in this area—that Chazelle prioritizes individual greatness over a relational good—as evidence for his claims that support it.

In acknowledging anti-NASA sentiment, Chazelle is illustrating why Armstrong and other astronauts had to be sent to Washington on a public relations mission for which Armstrong was not well suited. It also serves to further separate Neil from a general humanity that cannot relate to his extraterrestrial ambitions. This doesn’t make the protesters stupid or wrong, only different. First Man can’t possibly present a cogent argument for why going to the moon is an intrinsically good thing. It isn’t even clear that Armstrong has a moral or philosophic reason for wanting to get to the moon. Chazelle isn’t mocking the protesters; he’s given them space in a film that, despite the claims of its critics, isn’t focused on the larger issues they’re concerned with. This is a movie about an astronaut, not about the politics of space exploration.

In this sense, Brody and Smallwood commited themselves to the same kind of willful misreading of First Man that resulted in a minor controversy among some conservative commentators. After the film’s debut at the Venice Film Festival, Telegraph editor Anita Singh claimed that the filmmakers had chosen not to show Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planting the American flag on the moon. A writer at National Review derided the filmmakers for the decision and concluded his piece by saying, “History sure can be inconvenient when patriotism makes you queasy.” An editor of the Washington Times claimed that liberal hatred of historical monuments had culminated in an attempt to whitewash history.

Many of those commenting had not even seen the film, yet felt confident enough to analyze and condemn the filmmakers’motives. Had they actually watched it, they might have been assuaged by the clear presence of the flag, post-planting, to be sure, but still flying oddly rigid over the lunar surface. Despite being a film primarily concerned with the internal life of an astronaut—with the consequences of his drive and talent, and his immobilizing alienation exacerbated by grief—First Man has been bizarrely faulted for paying too little attention to national politics.

Art vs. the Artist

Critics of First Man aren’t criticizing the film for what it is, then, but for what it isn’t. Objections to the film’s title exemplifies this way of missing the point. The contrast here isn’t between Man and Woman but between Man and Alien, human and nonhuman. Neil struggles to relate to others, struggles to understand what others require of him relationally, and what they want from him socially. His fixation on the moon is ambiguous. Does he want to escape from humanity itself? He is relationally inhuman at times and his desires seem extraterrestrial. He represents the human desire to transcend humanity, which Chazelle isn’t confusing with greatness.

So what’s at stake in misunderstanding movies this way? After the massive critical and commercial success of La La Land, Chazelle is on his way to becoming a Hollywood fixture. There is surely little risk that he will be unable to continue making movies because of a few nagging commentators. And I must confess that I’m not very invested in the question of whether First Man gets the attention it may or may not deserve.

The question I am invested in is this: If the dominant mode of cultural criticism becomes one in which the aesthetic object under consideration is exchanged with the individual who made it, can art teach us anything? If we are constantly trying to get behind the art, to the wizard behind the curtain, our engagement with the art becomes mediated by our ideas of the motivations of its creator. The artistic work is now always subject to the politics of its creator. And any uncomfortable but fundamentally human truths that an artwork might hold for us can be cleverly avoided by focusing on the psychology of the individual who made it. ♦

Jordan Poyner is a graduate student at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, as well as a cofounder and editor of the New Herald, a journal of political and cultural commentary.

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