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First Man, and the Fictions of Space Exploration

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So, here’s something you probably don’t know about me: I love stories about solar system space exploration. I love fictionalizations of the mid-century space race like Apollo 13 and the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. I love hokey disaster movies in space like Gravity and The Martian. I have even voluntary sat down and watched absolute garbage like Defying Gravity (2009 ABC soap opera about a solar system exploration mission and the many love affairs that occur during it, with bonus aliens), Ascension (2014 Syfy miniseries about a Project Orion generation ship that turns out to be an earthbound social experiment, also with aliens), and The First (2018 wannabe prestige drama about a manned mission to Mars that inexplicably only leaves Earth at the very end of its season and spends most of its running time exploring Sean Penn’s manpain; no aliens, alas), simply because they were about the slow, complicated process of getting into space. Hell, I’m one of the few people who does not think Interstellar is completely worthless, mainly because the middle segment, set on a spaceship and focused on the characters having to overcome so many practical and technical challenges, checks every one of my favorite tropes.

And what are those tropes? Why do I love space stories so much? I love them because they satisfy my craving for competent, thoughtful protagonists. I love them because their heroes are usually smart, hard-working people who spend their time solving practical problems. I love them because they’re set in an environment so challenging that even the simplest problems become incredible challenges that require creative, fascinating solutions. I love them because, at their best, the drama and conflict in them emerge organically from those challenging situations, not from contrived, parachuted-in personal issues. I love them because there isn’t a better setting for genuinely impeccable plotting than space, where the only resources at your disposal are the ones you brought with you.

Most of all, I love stories about space exploration because they offer a different—and to my mind, better—model for heroic, adventurous storytelling than a lot of what pop culture produces. No one gets into space alone. No one does it by being a rule-breaking maverick. It takes thousands of people working together, respecting and listening to one another. The story of space exploration is the story of how, through self-sacrifice, hard work, cooperation, and camaraderie, we can achieve almost anything.

And yet, despite my genuine love for stories about space exploration and the Apollo program, I found myself feeling curiously unexcited about Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a biopic about Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his path to becoming the first man on the moon. While some of the criticism voiced towards the film’s project—basically “why bother when we already know he makes it”—struck me as glib (though, to be fair, the film does itself no favors on this front in its trailers, which do genuinely seem to suggest that there’s some question on this point), I have to admit that I approached First Man in genuine puzzlement as to why it had even been attempted. 2016’s Hidden Figures, it seemed to me, provided a much better template for future fiction about the Apollo program, shining a light on little-known corners of the endeavor, and on the people who took part in it who were not white men. Why go back to Armstrong and Apollo 11, whose story has surely been covered from every possible angle?

First Man doesn’t really give you a satisfying answer to this question. It’s a fantastic piece of filmmaking, with some stunning visuals and set-pieces—particularly the long final sequence on the moon itself, though I couldn’t shake the sneaking suspicion that in shooting these scenes Chazelle was driven primarily by his crushing disappointment that none of the real moon landing footage is in HD. And there are moments in Josh Singer’s script where you can almost sense a unique approach to the material. Where, instead of Right Stuff hyper-competence, or even Apollo 13 improvisation, the film highlights the ricketiness of the edifice NASA built to take men into space, the flimsiness of the technology that Armstrong and his fellow astronauts trusted with their lives, and the danger and uncertainty they met when they left the earth’s atmosphere.

It’s an interesting approach, but a rather flimsy scaffold upon which to hang an entire (long) movie. It works incredibly well in an early sequence, in which Armstrong and his fellow Gemini 8 astronaut Dave Scott (Christopher Abbott) find themselves spinning uncontrollably due to an unforeseen malfunction. Armstrong’s firm-yet-clearly-exasperated response of “No. I’m busy” when NASA asks him for information about the capsule’s condition while he’s trying to calculate a solution before losing consciousness from G-forces conveys the seriousness of his predicament and the weight that’s been placed on his shoulders. For all the support and technology backing him up, First Man is saying, it’s ultimately up to him to do the job. Similarly, Michael Collins’s (Lukas Haas) moment of barely-suppressed panic when bidding Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) goodbye as they leave for the lunar surface is a wonderfully human touch, a reminder that he is about to become the loneliest person in human history, and that there was a very real chance he’d have to make the journey back alone.

Other times, though, the film’s wallowing in the dangers of the Apollo program feels deeply manipulative. I found the entire sequence leading up to the Apollo 1 disaster exploitative and macabre. The way the film lingers on doomed mission commander Ed White (Jason Clarke), from stressing his friendship with Armstrong, to having Armstrong genuinely congratulate him for being named the first Apollo commander, felt like taking dramatic irony to absurd extremes. And the choice to fully dramatize the astronauts’ horrific deaths feels like it could only come from a place of wanting us to marvel at what a badass Armstrong must be, to stay on with the space program even after his friends died so terribly.

(To be fair, I’m bringing a lot of my own baggage to these reactions, since I didn’t know anything about the Gemini 8 malfunction, but did know about the Apollo 1 disaster. That said, there’s something genuinely unpleasant about the film’s deliberate drawing out of the moment in which three men were incinerated in a metal coffin.)

Another way of looking at it, of course, is that First Man highlights the difficulties and dangers of space exploration in order to puzzle over the type of person who would brave them in order to achieve an objectively meaningless goal. As such, the film avoids a lot of obvious pitfalls. I’ve seen some people dismiss it as great man fetishism, and I don’t think that’s entirely fair (though, again, the film doesn’t do itself any favors by placing so much emphasis on Armstrong’s grief over the death of his daughter, ultimately seeming to imply that he ran to the moon to get away from it). On the contrary, First Man works hard to establish that the traits that make Armstrong uniquely suited to the technical and emotional challenges of his mission also make him something very different from the standard Hollywood hero.

As portrayed by Gosling, Armstrong is thoughtful, methodical, almost bereft of ego. He’s not the easiest person to live with, especially when he’s in the grip of a mission, as exemplified by the scenes he shares with his increasingly exasperated wife Janet (Claire Foy). But he’s not the blustering, emotionally-illiterate manchild we’re used to seeing as a stand-in for heroism. He understands his responsibilities as a husband and father, even though he expects Janet to tolerate his need to step away from them. And he understands his responsibility to the mission and the team, even though the film he’s in chooses to downplay them both so entirely.

(Having said this, it’s worth noting that the alt-right missed a gigantic trick when it chose to blow its nonsense culture war wad around this movie on the non-issue of the supposed absence of American flags—which are, in fact, featured quite prominently. In a different universe, some smarter MRA types waited to see the movie, and then embraced it as a return to the values of traditional masculinity, one that recognizes the space program as the achievement of brave white men, in direct contrast to something like Hidden Figures.)

What’s missing from Gosling’s Armstrong, however, and what ultimately made First Man‘s project with him fail for me, is any sense of wonder or joy. In the scenes depicting the actual moon landing, Gosling and the film’s sound engineers worked to manipulate his performance so as to sound almost identical to the original recordings of Armstrong. But the extremely noticeable shift only draws attention to the choices Gosling and Chazelle have made elsewhere in the movie. Most of Gosling’s line readings reek of the weight on his shoulders—of his mission, of his grief, of the sheer responsibility of being a Great Man. It’s as though the entire endeavor would be cheapened if he ever allowed himself to feel happy or excited about what he was doing, or experience wonder at the privilege he was granted and the new frontiers he was crossing. When imitating the real Armstrong, on the other hand, he just sounds like a person—a little nervous, a little self-conscious, but mostly focused on the job at hand. We suddenly notice just how up himself the fictionalized version of Armstrong has seemed, and how the absence of that self-obsession makes one a much better emissary for humanity’s first forays on another world.

In the end, for all of Chazelle and Gosling’s incredible work, First Man is remarkably uninvolving. It lacks the sense of uplift that should be the foundation of any space story. It’s so wound up in its hero’s manpain—and in convincing us that it’s not just manpain but something grander and more impressive—that it forgets to inspire us. I imagine there will be some people for whom First Man is the first Apollo program dramatization they’ve seen, and that thought makes me sad. We all deserve a version of this story that gives us joy and hope, that inspires awe at the universe and what it takes to explore it. If First Man wants us to feel awe, it is only at its hero.

Now, over to you: have you seen First Man? Did you like it? Are you fans of space stories, and if so, what are your favorites? What do you think should be the core traits of this genre?

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