Ryan Gosling stars as Neil ArmstrongUniversal Pictures/Youtube

The first thing that came to mind when I saw the trailer for Damien Chazelle’s First Man was the episode of The Simpsons where Neil Armstrong appears as himself at a Comic-Con style event. Completely ignored by the throngs of cosplaying fans, his frustrated manager yells ‘This man has actually been in outer space!’ Edna Krabappel, speaking for the crowd, replies ‘Ha! Nobody cares!’

And indeed, the truth is that space travel is for many quite banal, even boring. If you can forgive two Simpsons references in such close proximity, it is worth mentioning that its writers – ever the astute reflectors and satirizers of mainstream opinion – send Homer to space under that exact premise. 

"Progress is perilous, challenging, exciting. But we know how the film ends so its depiction must suggest something other than pure titillation."

But this was not always the way. I was wide-eyed when my father told me that as a boy living in Florida, he saw from his lawn the actual Apollo 11 rocket ascend and watched on his black & white television men walk on the moon. In that moment, for him, all nationalistic rhetoric surrounding the space race fell away. He is Canadian, and as such never stood for the national anthem nor the pledge of allegiance as is demanded of American schoolchildren. Then and now, when he considers the moon landing, he is swelled by a humanistic pride that transcends the abstract notions of creed and country.   

I think it was reasonable of me to assume, then, that a story of the moon landing would seek to fracture our current state of nonchalance. Shklovsky said that there were essentially two types of art, existent on a spectrum between social and poetic. Social art is that which reinforces those things we take for granted, making them appear natural by communicating in a way that we are used to. Poetic art is that which defamiliarizes what we take for granted, communicating in novel ways so we might consider things anew. 

Youtube - Universal Pictures

First Man is a little of column A, a little of column B. It promulgates myths of national pride and progress as ultimately good: the need to beat the Russians remains wholly uninterrogated; questions of if the space race was money well spent are briefly addressed with a poem by Gil Scott-Heron only to be brushed aside in the film’s general sweep; and the crass apposition of Armstrong performing a successful space manoeuvre with his son hoisting the American flag elicited from me a helpless guffaw. 

"Heightening the tension and the sense of awe is the interweaving of the epic with the human."

But what it does not do is present progress as easy, or – God forbid – boring. Progress is perilous, challenging, exciting. But we know how the film ends so its depiction must suggest something other than pure titillation. It is a highly intimate film, composed almost entirely, it would seem, of closeups. Sweaty brows; frantic manipulation of inscrutable dials and buttons; distressingly unfamiliar noise and light abound. NASA’s machines paradoxically seem both slipshod and exacting. Indeed, in finding this exactitude, the slipshodness impels death that permeates Armstrong’s life. All lends itself to a sense of pioneering and true danger that belies the contemporary attitude to space travel.


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Heightening the tension and the sense of awe is the interweaving of the epic with the human. Armstrong’s family life is often shot in such a way to suggest home video. Intradiegetic sound bridges seamlessly blend work and homelife, safety and danger, one emotion with its polar opposite. The modesty, vulnerability, implicit humanity and ultimate dignity of the film’s protagonist – that certain critics, seeing Gosling’s minimalist acting, have ignored or misunderstood – strengthen it yet further. Things bleed into each other helplessly and yet, while thoroughly acknowledged, they do not ever interrupt the mission; serving our modern taste for the human hero, not the unreal ubermensch of the past, the epic aspect is made all the loftier for the contrast. 

Progress in First Man is messy, strange, dangerous, thrilling and glorious. But this glory is tempered by the film’s humanity. Hubris plays no part in it; there cannot be hubris because those involved knew just how unlikely it was, just how many things went wrong, how many people died for it to happen. I came away thinking, ‘this man has actually been in space!’ When those who would abandon our planet for some other watch the latest Space X video I would encourage them to bear this film in mind.  

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