The world that First Man director Damien Chazelle creates around Apollo 11 and America’s (and the world’s) first successful moon mission is apolitical and technically highly accomplished. His earlier films, Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016), also celebrated American heroes of a bygone era without strong political or social filters. The protagonists in all three films are emotionally repressed men with one goal in their lives –
to achieve something bigger than themselves and the society or culture they live in, and make their name in history. In the most overused phrase for this kind of celebratory heroism, they want to make America great again.
The hero of this new film is Neil Armstrong, the first man to land on the moon, who was the commander of NASA’s Apollo 11 and was accompanied by Buzz Aldrin. It’s the 1960s, the height of Cold War, and Americans are way behind Russia in space exploration. Neil (Ryan Gosling) is an aeronautic engineer and a professor who gets selected by NASA for their moon mission. Before moving to Houston, Texas, for participating in this mission, Neil and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) lose their second child Karen to cancer. The personal tragedy festers inside Neil, but also eggs him on to plunge into his work at NASA with more cool-headed determination than he had before. His repressed grief over the loss of his child is damaging for his family, and Chazelle uses this streak of the character as a narrative foil to his achievement.
There is no strong sense of the politics of the time, including the reason why there was widespread opposition to the money spent on NASA’s moon mission. Archival vox pop footage of protesters and a speech by writer and satirist Kurt Vonnegut appear in one scene, but we don’t know what Neil feels about it. Neil, his fellow astronauts, and their families hark back to an America of the early 20th century – in music, taste and ideas of heroism. Anti-Russian rhetoric is strictly used in jingoistic, military banter.
Technically, it is a brilliantly mounted film. The sound track, with a metallic, theremin-heavy background score and special effects. The black and expansive space craft from inside and the silvery, crater-filled outer space are remarkably designed. The cinematography, sound design and music come together for a minimalist space spectacle that makes films Apollo 13 (1995) seem like a puppet show.
Ryan Gosling takes on the role of a man of unusual calm and appetite for suffering for a higher goal with subdued physicality. He is an actor who uses tiny expressions on his face for big dramatic moments, and here it works effectively. Claire Foy’s character, on the other hand, is expressive and precise. She nurses her loneliness with an outburst in the end, which Foy effectively builds up to.
With First Man, Chazelle is firmly in the tradition of American filmmakers who celebrate American heroism of the past with cleverly and efficiently devised splendour (Steven Spielberg being its master). For times like today, when American nationalism has become a fodder for even the most mediocre artists and comedians, forsaking a political point of view can be soothing mass entertainment, but not enduring enough.