Wednesday, October 31, 2018
Directed by Damien Chazelle, starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong and Claire Foy as his wife Jan.
A SPACE CASE
FIRST MAN is a big box of visual and aural tricks with which the film manages not to tell its story of the first man on the moon, but to suggest it. It’s almost—but not quite—a ho-hum event. Witness this brief exchange between spaceman Neil Armstrong’s wife and son: She tells the boy his father is going to the moon. The child replies, indifferently, “Can I go outside and play?” Life is like that in this movie: Daddy “goes outside” to the moon; his son “goes outside” to play.
Thus, FIRST MAN is an almost offhand treatment of events that will be familiar to those of us alive and aware at the time of Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s walk on the moon on July 20, 1969. Newer viewers unaware of the details of the story are likely to spend moments in this movie puzzled and wondering just what is going on. The movie is an evasive maneuver and seems perversely determined to catch those viewers guessing, while parsing out the story in dribs and drabs.
Consider. Notably lacking is the apparatus included in most historical films, i.e., those helpful narrative devices of billboarded titles, a few newspaper headlines, newsreels, and radio broadcasts that contextualize the narrative. Only at the end, as Armstrong’s foot plants itself in the lunar dust, do we get a smattering of same. Instead, for most of the time, snatches of conversations are sometimes muttered, evaded, interrupted—even unintelligible at crucial moments. The characters keep their backs turned to us at times; at others, they are almost lost in the background of a shot. And what they say is, well, more unsaid than said. And the Big Moments of the drama are so downplayed as to be almost repressed. Example: When the final decision is made that Armstrong will be commander of Apollo Eleven, you can almost hear him saying, “Okay, now pass the salt.”
Now, all of this is quite appropriate to the way Armstrong himself comes across to us. At times he’s IN space; at others, he’s rather OUT of it—
Seldom has a visual style and a psychological portrait been so strongly unified as in this portrait of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong. We see him sidelong, as it were, from a skewed angle, his words few and his expressions spare. He is remote, diffident, distant from his fellow astronauts, mostly absent from home life. His emotional distance from his long-suffering wife and children is as remote as his distance from the moon. It’s all his wife can do to persuade him to talk things over with his children before the Launch. No matter the chaos around him—be it an unruly child, a test pilot crash, a space capsule emergency, a near-miss of the moon—he is unruffled and remote.
What’s explains the psychic and emotional trauma behind this man? The film gives us an answer—sort of. It begins with the apparent loss of his baby daughter to cancer. At least, I think that’s what happened. The montage of images is so select and so subtle, that we wonder if it happened at all. By the way, the child does appear to him in later scenes. In a way, to him, she never died—
I might add that Ryan Gosling’s performance as Armstrong is perfectly attuned to this sort of measured distance from people and feelings. No one on the planet—or on the moon—can better convey this sort of thing. Remember Lars and the Real Girl?