Ironically, the first (and sometimes last) thing most of the public heard about Damien Chazelle’s First Man was that it was un-American. Immediately after its Venice Film Festival opening, the movie’s failure to show Neil Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission became its defining feature in conservative chatter. Marco Rubio even tweeted about it. It’s ironic because First Man is a beautifully made, countercultural movie that should warm conservative hearts.
As portrayed by Ryan Gosling and imagined by screenwriter Josh Singer, Armstrong is a paragon of nontoxic masculinity, a type as rare as good manners among today’s usual screen buffoons and betas (not to mention the harassers back in the studio offices). He’s the opposite of the mansplaining, manspreading, entitled white guy of feminist (and often Hollywood) imagination. “He had no ego,” Chris Kraft, head of Houston flight operations, once said of the real-life Armstrong. No ego, maybe, but macho nonetheless. Armstrong is fearless and self-confident; he is John Wayne with a joystick and archaic computing power. Gosling, whose unassuming, sad-eyed watchfulness has inspired a “Feminist Ryan Gosling” meme, including a Tumblr blog and a novelty book, evokes the loving, ordinary family man—though one with superhuman willpower and nerves of steel.
Still, director Chazelle avoids slipping into outright hero worship and the familiar trap of space romanticism. You won’t find many of those flaming sunrises crowning the curved horizon, or the jewel-like Earth suspended in midnight sky that have become the stock images of space films. In First Man, Chazelle’s astronauts are tied down in a claustrophobic tin can from whose puny window they see only a slash of sky—when they can focus their eyes. The nauseating shaking and deafening clatter put me in mind of the (possibly apocryphal) John Glenn story: as he looked around his satellite before the launch of his historic mission, he realized that he was sitting “in a capsule on top of a rocket that were both built by the lowest bidder.” First Man may have cost $60 million to bring to the screen, but it often strives for an aesthetic of hardware purchased at the local Home Depot.
Death shadows Armstrong throughout the film, from the hair-raising opening of a F-15 test flight 20 miles over the Mojave Desert, when he loses control and almost spins off into space, to the terrifying malfunction of the Gemini 8 capsule that follows his successful space docking, a historic first. In one scene just before the Apollo 11 takeoff, NASA executives review the statement prepared for President Richard Nixon referring to the “widows” left behind in case the men never make it back. Early in the film, in a choppy series of anguishing short scenes, we see Armstrong’s two-year-old daughter succumb to an inoperable brain tumor. Armstrong remains haunted by the death; Chazelle suggests that grief for his daughter fueled his determination.
In First Man is also an un-ironic suburban domestic drama, the opposite of cheap send-ups like American Beauty or Happiness. Chazelle evokes the post-World War II, pre-sexual-revolution squareness of family life without a hint of mockery or discomfort: the ticky-tacky comfort of the Houston astronauts’ complex, the J.C. Penney dresses and short-sleeved, knitted mock turtleneck worn by Gosling, the noisy children in the swimming pool. Claire Foy, superb as Armstrong’s wife Janet, soars beyond the stereotype of the put-upon, mid-century suburban housewife. The British actress evokes an unfashionable strain of no-nonsense, can-do, pioneer housewifery. Early in the film, it’s Janet who assures Neil that his new gig with NASA “will be an adventure.” Later, in a moment of understandable fear and frustration, she complains to a neighbor, another astronaut wife whose husband will die in a horrific Apollo-related fire, that she married an engineer because she “wanted a normal life.” The friend responds that she’s in touch with an old friend who is “married to a dentist.” Foy muses with a faintly surprised look, “a dentist,” as if taking in the enormity of her husband’s—and ultimately her own—destiny.
Chazelle allows one moment of dissent to the mood when he includes a montage of protests against the moon launch, including Gil Scott-Heron reading “Whitey on the Moon,” his jazz-poem. “I can’t pay no doctor bills,” Scott-Heron raps, “but whitey’s on the moon.” Chazelle knows that his film is running against the currents of Hollywood right now, stuck in its #OscarsSoWhite moment. Richard Brody of the New Yorker was not alone in describing the film as a straight white director’s celebration of straight white-male characters; what about the Jim Crow conditions of the South where some of the movie takes place? he asked. What about the Russian woman astronaut who had recently orbited the earth? “Every awards season needs a villain, and this year mine is First Man,” Jezebel’s reviewer announced. He compared the film unfavorably with Hidden Figures, the 2016 film about black women who worked at NASA as mathematicians.
Unwoke as it is, First Man has won praise from most critics, though it has languished at the box office. I doubt it was because of that missing American flag. I suspect that the film’s countercultural ambience has led to its rocky start. Despite its momentous subject, this is a quiet film about a quiet man; there is no catharsis, no high emotion, no witty ripostes or eye-rolling. This may be the wrong cultural moment for such earnest stoicism.
It’s clearly the wrong cultural moment to be reminded of a historical triumph absent diversity. I ran into an old acquaintance at the end of the movie, a law professor and, it’s worth mentioning, the long-married mother of two boys. “Hated it,” she grumbled. “All those creepy men.” She brightened briefly. “But did you see Hidden Figures?” It’s a shame. First Man deserves better than the Pavlovian griping of a polarized public.