First Man: The Cost of a Dream

By Aaron Tan (19A01B)

Like a tuna in a tin can, the man rattles in his metallic prison. We see nothing but his tortured face, stifled by shadow, all at once a blur and a clatter, the force of nearly four Gs pressing skin into bone—we hear nothing but the oppressive jangle of loose parts, the monstrous roar of the rocket engine, the altimeter’s tick-tick-tick, counting up thirty, a hundred, two hundred thousand feet. Up, up he soars, past the clouds (his breath is laboured), piercing the stratosphere (the rattling persists) to the edge of light and darkness, clawing at the gates of the final frontier. 

And then, tranquility descends. Reflected in his helmet and dazzled eyes – Earth. The celestial marble, shimmering, reveals itself in the horizon of his visor. The cockpit: his jail, and his liberation.

It does not last. The X-15 aircraft, gripped by surface’s surly bonds, slips back. Down he plunges, rattle, rattle, rattle through the stratosphere. The altimeter counts down. Two hundred thousand, a hundred and forty thousand, a hundred and forty thousand… a hundred and forty thousand … and back up it goes. “We show you ballooning, not turning,” crackles a raspy voice from Flight Control. “Hard left turn, Neil! Hard left turn!”

It’s no good. He’s skipping across the atmosphere like a stone across water. He tussles with the controls as gravity takes over and he approaches the ground once more, albeit 50 miles off-course. Engaging the skids, he makes an emergency landing and falls back into the blistering arms of the Mojave Desert.

His mission complete, he steps out. This is Neil Armstrong.

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In its opening minutes, one thing becomes abundantly clear: First Man isn’t just your ordinary, triumphant recount of the now-fabled Moon Landing. It is cold, it is claustrophobic. Harrowing, terrifying. And yet, there is beauty, tenderness, romance, almost troubling in its ambiguity. In First Man, Director Damien Chazelle dares to ask – what is the price of a dream? What is the price of an impossible mission, built on the back of vomit and death and fear; with loss and hubris and Cold War blocs?

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There is a claustrophobia that pervades First Man. “I wanted the audience to feel like they’re inside that capsule, screaming to get out,” said director Damien Chazelle in an interview for the Guardian. During the moon landing sequence, Chazelle deliberately omits the perspective of ground control in favour of keeping the camera in space, in order to make the audience feel like “they were there”.

And yet, the film’s protagonist, Neil Armstrong, remains frustratingly obtuse, walled-up. As the film progresses, Armstrong retreats further and further into himself, cramming himself deeper and deeper into the stone walls of his psyche as he does into a space capsule. Ryan Gosling’s taciturn, unflinching performance captures Armstrong at his most personal— impenetrable and yet (and because he is) vulnerable—a man who has lost too much. Early in the film he held his wife Janet in his arms as they swayed, under the soft nightlights, to the drowsy, dreamlike Lunar Rhapsody; he had laughed as he played with his children.

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Unironically one of my favourite scenes in the movie

As time passes and his project surges forward, he stops laughing. He stops talking to them entirely. He comes home, only to grab a drink and to leave, slamming the door, immediately after. The night before Apollo 11, he sits across his children at the dinner table, emotionless, telling them how he might never see them again, his cadence icy, detached, as if he were giving a press conference (amongst the film’s many shocking images, this may be the most harrowing).

 

In the midst of all this, there are moments of brilliance and beauty. Director Damien Chazelle has an eye for spectacle and romance  (it is a shame that the subject material hindered him from operating it at fullest potential). Evoking Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, the strings of composer Justin Hurwitz sing their sweet song as the Gemini 8 capsule makes its delicate connection with the Agena docking target. Contemplating the death of a fellow astronaut, Armstrong stares into the unflinching, orblike midnight moon.

And as Apollo 11 takes off at dawn, plumes of smoke and fire billowing against the sun-speckled sky as the rocket shoots, dartlike, toward its lunar target, the scene is transfigured. A romantic landscape—almost Baroque in its poignancy and drama—emerges, until we, at escape velocity, break through those pearly gates into the cold, dark embrace of space—gliding into the void as the theremin croons and Lunar Rhapsody graces us once more, beckoning us as we fly toward its home in the moondust.

It is this seamless combination of personal biography and technological drama that sets First Man apart. While the biography, at times, can feel tedious (you can tell when Chazelle wasn’t having as much fun), Chazelle nonetheless artfully weaves these narratives together to tell a story of the man behind the helmet.

“I related to it as a movie about trying to turn dreams into reality, somewhat similar to La La Land and Whiplash,” he said. In another interview, he mentioned “…in general, I’m interested in people at work—the process of people making something or working toward a goal, and what the prices of that goal might be. People who are really driven—I like those kind of characters. There’s a lot of inherent drama in watching unreasonable people butt up against the real world.”

You can tell. In La La Land, lyrical lovebirds Mia and Sebastian develop (and end) a whirlwind romance as they confront their Technicolour world.  In Whiplash, aspiring jazz drummer Andrew Neiman sacrifices everything – his relationships, his health, his sanity – spurred on by his abusive instructor Terence Fletcher (“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’”) in an effort to become one of the ‘greats’. In First Man, the US sacrifices lives to get to the Moon before the Russians do, and Armstrong, devastated by loss, grappling with his trauma, is determined to make them succeed, at all costs. Including that of his family. (Neil and Janet got a divorce in 1994.)

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In the film, Armstrong speaks poetically of how by going to the moon, Man may see “things we should have maybe seen a long time ago.” And by the end of the film, we may find ourselves asking – what exactly is it that we saw? Did we see the Soviets gnashing their teeth? See (past) the protests, the demonstrations, my sister Nell? Did we see how, after it was revealed that the planting of the US flag was not to be depicted in the movie (though the flag itself was clearly shown), a wave of outrage swept America, a wave which involved its very own President? (“I think it’s a terrible thing,” Trump opined in an interview with the Daily Caller). How Armstrong saw, separated from him by a glass wall in the final moments of the film, sitting wordless—his wife.

Or did we see the men and women of all nations and creeds, glued to their television screens in anxious anticipation? (“I knew they couldn’t fail,” a French woman says of the Americans in a snippet of archive footage) Did we, in the words of Russell Schweickart of Apollo 9, “become startlingly aware how are thousands of boundaries we’ve created to separate and define … feel in [our guts] the precious unity of the Earth and all the living things it supports”? Do we see the limitless potential that awaits us, beyond the Moon, beyond Mars, if we would only try? If we would, once more, dream of the stars?

How I hope we do.

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(After the writing of this article, it was announced that NASA was once more sending man to the moon.

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