After seeing First Man recently, and finding it a far more intense experience than I anticipated on both an emotional and cinematic level, I naturally rushed home to write up some thoughts on it. Like many have said, it is less a presentation of the majesty of space, the enormity of human achievement, or the abstract inhumanity of national progress or patriotic jingoism; indeed this is what may have inflamed the collective egos of American conservatives upon finding out that the film does not [horror of horrors] feature a scene wherein the American flag is planted on the moon.
Indeed this call to feed the ugly, inflated sacs of empty nationalistic pride is precisely what First Man flouts so magnificently. Upon hearing a film is being made about Neil Armstrong and the moon landing, the immediate fear [or hope for some] might be that we’re getting either a dry, unexciting recounting of historical events or an overly sentimental jingoistic affirmation of American cold war patriotism. What Damien Chazelle does is sidestep both of these pitfalls magnificently by focusing on the “Man” of the film’s title. This is not some story of grand collective achievement as much as it is a personal study of trauma, grief, the drive to confront our fears, emotional repression, and, overall, intimacy.
Where similar films have in the past chosen to represent space through this lens of awe and majesty, offering us the classic Kubrick-esque outer shots of spaceships slowly docking, of gigantic objects floating gently through the void, First Man forgoes this approach almost entirely until we reach the moon itself, presenting itself almost in the manner of a home-made film in how the hand-held camera intimately focuses on surroundings and people, shaking, almost to the state of complete abstraction, during the most white-knuckle scenes of space-born malfunction and flight. From within the small metal box hurtling through the cosmos we are with the astronauts, being thrown around and shaken to pieces.
The effect is one of bypassing the inhuman machines of national accomplishment, churning cold war politics, the infinite void beyond that small window, and leading us crashing into the painful and poignant realities of the human. The heart of the film are points like the early brief scene where Armstrong draws the curtain to cry so nobody else can see him, and running through it is his personal attempt to consolidate his feelings of grief and loss with the stoic, emotionless figurehead he’s asked to be, the effects of all this on his wife and family, the human cost of the space programme, the gigantic feats of engineering and impossibly expansive context and ambition viewed from a perspective of total intimacy and tenderness. Armstrong’s journey to the moon is framed against his own attempts to confront his own emotions, get past the divide he has erected between himself and the people he loves. The visor of the space helmet becomes his shield from others, and ultimately the “giant leap” of the famous line becomes his, not mankind’s , first and foremost, inverting an abstractly vast human feat into one man overcoming his own emotional obstacles.
This is, in some ways, the film about the moon landings that I didn’t know I desperately wanted, rendering the intimacy of space, reducing our perspective of the event from these statistics, numbers, footage, just some event we know happened, we know is important but have no real conception of, to the eyes of one man, wracked with fear and grief but unable to show it, to one woman, terrified that her husband might not make it back, to a personal tale of loss that renders the intimate humanity of our torment as a cosmic achievement, the drive to uncover new horizons becomes our own, the rocket, blasting towards a white dot in the sky, becomes an emotional journey. Space becomes the other we must confront, the horizon we must reach to consolidate the feelings that terrify us but reside within us. It is one of the most intensely beautiful things I’ve seen this year.