By Noel Vera
Directed by Damien Chazelle
YOU NEED TO KEEP reminding yourself: Damien Chazelle’s adaptation of James Hansen’s biographical book First Man is not The Right Stuff and astronaut Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) is no test pilot in the mold of Chuck Yeager, nor was it — or he — meant to be. Question: does it manage to stand on its own four radically redesigned fins?
Chazelle goes the alternate route: where Stuff had sweep and humor and drive, Man goes inward — is almost Bergmanesque in its attempt to probe Armstrong’s hermetically closed psyche. Definitely a courageous, relatively uncommercial attempt, and Chazelle manages a few startling effects along the way — the camera inside the capsule for one, capturing the claustrophobia inside the tiny space, not the least because Chazelle takes care to show us how the process happens: the long walk up and across the gantry, the awkward climb inside, the squeezing into seats, the heavy doors and large bolts being fitted place (vacuum-sealed if you like for maximum security).
Then — and this may be the director’s best effect: you listen to the sounds: the groans and keening of metal being stressed, not just by extremes of heat and cold (liquid kerosene is kept at -53° F, liquid oxygen at -361° F, liquid hydrogen at an enamel-shattering -423° F; the rocket itself when fired achieves a high of 3,500° F), but the bending and twisting of the wind. You’re constantly made aware by the concerto of creaks that they are sitting on top of a 36-story building wrapped in flimsy metal sheets and filled almost to the gills with explosively volatile fuel. Not bad from a filmmaker who previously made a drumming picture (Whiplash) and a musical (La La Land) — someone you might say is constantly obsessed with the emotional and dramatic impact of a sound.
Beyond the sounds is Gosling: if you need an introverted actor who sucks the oxygen out of any room he happens to stand in he’s your man, and that’s only halfway meant to be a slam. He’s in the same school of interiorized somewhat narcissistic acting as Keanu Reeves and Robert Pattinson, who specialize in reacting to the most outrageous situations with a grunt and grimace, a kind of minimalist response system that at its best suggests a character obsessed with controlling the face he presents to the world, at worse is a deadly bore. Armstrong, you quickly realize, is all about the Right Stuff: he strives to maintain that even strain, and any crack on his impassive facade is a failure and crisis, a betrayal even.
As Armstrong’s first wife Janet Shearon (the film stops shortly after conclusion of the moon shot), Claire Foy at first shares her husband’s impassivity, plays the classic role of supportive wife and mother with ho-hum competence. But somewhere along the way Janet has her fill of Neil’s professional demeanor and in a scene that may have been added by Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer, may have been taken from Hansen’s book (I have not read the source material) posits a scene where Janet literally has to corner Neil and force him to talk to his kids before going on what is basically a suicide mission. An uncomfortable and yet horrifyingly funny moment that Foy makes the most of, because it’s the one point where she’s allowed to break out and assert her authority. Foy makes a fine foil for Gosling if you like, who’s allowed to spread his wings and soar.
Or at least glide along on cruising speed, at optimal attitude. In the end you miss the social context and satire Stuff provided, the kind of broad canvas of the United States that director Philip Kaufman channeling Tom Wolfe painted for his winged epic, a suitably colorful backdrop against which his equally colorful characters can strike heroic poses and fling themselves at the sky. You miss the humor, and while it’s possibly too much to ask that Armstrong himself display some form of freeze-dried wit, the film might have packed some for the trip, as a means of contrast and comparison, smuggled perhaps by his traveling companions. At one point in his novel Tom Wolfe witheringly sums up the astronaut as a “computer;” when asked a question Armstrong would hesitate, and out of his mouth would stream “a sequence of long, quiet, perfectly formed, precisely thought-out sentences, full of anisotropic functions and multiple encounter trajectories” — that brief description seems to better convey what a conversation with Armstrong can be like better than this entire film.
Beyond Foy and Gosling the rest of the astronauts are presented as a largely anonymous bunch, a remarkable feat on Chazelle’s part considering how outsized some of these personalities can be. I’m looking especially hard at Buzz Aldrin, ably played by Corey Stoll with the suitable amount of spark: given enough screen time and interaction he could have been Janet’s equivalent at work, constantly poking and probing Armstrong, trying to find out how the walking computer ticks. Aldrin might succeed, might not, but we would have been at least partly enlightened by the attempt.
In the film’s climactic landing (skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t seen the film!) we’re provided with an (entirely fictional) conceit: that Armstrong was perhaps emotionally traumatized by the death of his daughter Karen, that he thought of her when he was on the lunar surface — possibly left her keepsake in a nearby crater — and that his time of solitude on the moon was a means of making peace with her memory. I don’t know; if Chazelle and Singer decided to add the scene to postulate some previously unseen side to Armstrong, their decision is a bit of a cheat: the gesture doesn’t come out of anything we know of the man, it follows the too-familiar contours of biopic territory (and here a quick peek at Singer’s filmography shows that he’s perfectly capable of committing said crime), and it compromises the film’s opaque surface, which by this time has acquired a mule headed integrity. The story ends just when things in Armstrong’s life should be getting really interesting: this taciturn man, confronted with the lifelong glare of fame, having to contend with international attention, endless requests for autographs, invitations for interviews, talk shows, product endorsements, public events, and so on. He deals with them as he’s always done, with that mildly bizarre stubborn terseness with which he deals with everything.
First Man isn’t quite Stuff — it lacks the latter film’s variety and (to the latter’s credit) self-critical satire. But it has its own look and feel (unlike, say, Ron Howard’s terminally generic Apollo 13) and generates its own understated drama; it does eventually manage to take off, describing its own suborbital parabola, ending in a muted if memorable splashdown.