Ryan Gosling in 'First Man'
Courtesy: Universal Pictures

Opinion

Ryan Gosling's 'First Man' Is About More Than a Flag

It was never going to be about a flag. First Man—Damien Chazelle’s new film following Neil Armstrong in the eight years leading up to his historic flight to walk on the surface of the moon—is an intensely personal film, less about NASA or spaceflight or grand national triumphs, and more about the pressures and sacrifices of the individuals caught up in the push to expand humanity’s reach.

It is not a feel-good space movie, it is not a celebration of rockets and engineering and, despite being placed squarely in the context of the space race and the ambitions of the U.S. government to conquer the moon before the Soviets, it never goes in the direction of national glory. There are American flags in the background, on the uniforms, on the spacecraft and on the moon. But the film is not about flags, nor anything they represent.
Thematically, and as a cinematic experience, First Man has a lot in common with Chazelle’s earlier film, Whiplash, the painfully intense portrayal of a young man’s self-sacrificial ambitions in music, both driven on and hindered by a brilliant but abusive instructor. Where the protagonist in Whiplash spent much of the film screaming and sweating and lashing out, Ryan Gosling portrays Neil Armstrong with an eerily quiet, intense focus and a kind of personal disregard that is in effect no less destructive to everything else in his life. The film strongly suggests that Armstrong’s pre-NASA family tragedy is to blame for his emotional detachment, but a steady subtext throughout First Man, echoing that of Whiplash, is the question of whether one must necessarily suppress one’s humanity to achieve something truly transcendent.

Armstrong, as depicted in the film, and as described by those who knew him, was a guarded, serious man, calm under pressure, focused absolutely on his mission. His ability to keep his cool under extraordinary circumstances saved his life on multiple occasions, some of which are depicted so vividly in the film that you can’t help clutching the armrest, despite knowing exactly how it will all turn out in the end. While First Man is, fundamentally, not a space movie, it is a fascinating and visceral experience of early spaceflight, in all its shaky, creaky, occasionally exploding glory.
The film’s perspective during every flight sequence is almost entirely from Armstrong’s point of view. In the opening scene, you are inside the cramped cockpit of an experimental X-15 aircraft—half-rocket, half-hypersonic airplane—as Armstrong attempts to wrestle the thing down to Earth. The feeling of being in an out-of-control tin can while it’s ripped apart, bouncing off the atmosphere, is juxtaposed with side-long views through the tiny X-15 windows of the graceful curvature of the Earth and the quiet blackness of space.

Throughout the film, we are reminded that every sublime perspective of Earth from afar, or of the surface of another world, only comes about through body-breaking, metal-shearing brute force that was equal parts precision engineering and experimental wire-and-twine boundary pushing. The early U.S. space program was not smooth or glamorous, and it was not safe. Each advance toward the astonishingly successful moon missions came at the cost of trial-and-error test runs to build technology and skills, and many lives were lost along the way. One of the film’s most chilling scenes, and one of the few taking the focus away from Armstrong himself, was the depiction of the Apollo 1 disaster, a particularly gruesome tragedy that briefly delayed flights to the moon while NASA learned from its mistakes. The program carried on.
Those who walk into First Man expecting a film reveling in nationalistic triumph will be disappointed.
Those who walk into First Man expecting a film reveling in nationalistic triumph will be disappointed—and perhaps this helps explain its muted opening weekend at the box office. The pre-release controversy over the lack of a flag-planting scene—presumably accompanied by an exultant trumpets-and-horns soundtrack—may reflect the frustrated expectations of a portion of the potential viewership, but the title of the film should be a clue. It’s about a man, in an extraordinary situation, with an incredibly difficult task, enduring the watchful gaze of the entire human race.

It’s about a man doing a job—one that has never been done before, but one that is a job, nonetheless. And it’s about what it takes, as an individual human being, to push boundaries into the unknown. The film never shies away from that humanity, and never gives into the temptation to make Armstrong a sanitized hero and symbol of America. There is a flag on the moon, but there are also footprints. This is a film about what it was like to be the person wearing those boots, taking one small step, and then another.

Dr. Katie Mack is an astrophysicist at North Carolina State University, studying the universe from beginning to end. She tweets as @AstroKatie, and her website is www.astrokatie.com.

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