Perhaps the most consistently banalized of all prestige genres, the “Oscarbait biopic” has recently emerged as an idiom for self-complicating narrative cinema. But the Oscarbait biopic can take many forms. For name-conscious auteurs seeking to problematize the individualist Oscarbait formula, with its focus on personal growth and salvation at the expense of wider social or material realities, this kind of film typically allows filmmakers to produce popularly legible dramas while paying attention (and often, frankly, lip service) to social issues. For other, often more artistically inspired filmmakers who frequently nonetheless run the risk of drowning in their personal myopic, biopics tend to center characters who are facsimiles for the creators of the films themselves. It was impossible to miss director Damien Chazelle in the main character of the decidedly agitated Whiplash or in either of the protagonists of La La Land. Neither film had any itch to explore a world outside the nearly hermetic glory of personal creation, each suggesting a kind of laudable final artistic transcendence that, in the first case, might mean the loss of a character’s soul, and in the second, the loss of a companion.
First Man’s Neil Armstrong, in contrast, is essayed as a kind of blank canvas and evacuated man by Ryan Gosling. He also, I suspect, really isn’t meant to be Neil Armstrong. I’m not sure how much Chazelle sees of himself in Armstrong, but it doesn’t really matter. Although this new film misses some opportunities, and its central character’s steadfast determination and essential dismissal of anything resembling a personal life may be read as further proxies for Chazelle, it is testament to First Man – indeed, it may be why the film is meaningful at all – that it is the first of this director’s films where the protagonist isn’t a myopic recreation of personal psychology so much as a Rosetta Stone for a culture, a time-period, and an ethos. And, at times beautifully, for the film’s own self-conscious limits in exploring that time-period.
Like so many recent genre-pic-biopics that toe the line between deificiation of American know-how and, contrarily, self-critical observation of calculated, calculating Americana evacuating any soul – and any sense of peripheral vision for marginalized society – in service of achieving a singular goal (one thinks most overtly of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper), First Man is essentially a portrait of totemic Americana as a self-deifying and self-lacerating vision. It’s the story of men who, in the name of a capital-A Achievement, fasten themselves so studiously to the sublime (or the terrifying, or the abject) that they have no idiom for approaching the banal, the everyday, the quotidian.
This, of course, is its own myth: the American who, by dint of their personal competence, commits themselves to the pit of social abjection in service of singular artistic or technical achievement. It is absolutely to its credit then that, more than in Chazelle’s previous films, First Man both skirts this template for psychological acuity and wholly cuts against this grain, something he attempted in neither previous film. In La La Land, Chazelle’s clear fascination with the subject matter of glorious skill sometimes registered as an excuse to revel in technical virtuosity masquerading as rapturous grace. And Whiplash’s pummeling dissection of extraordinary pain in service of success, intended as a counterpoint to the film’s outright pleasure in fetishizing its protagonist’s breakneck rhythms and receptivity to violent criticism, felt more like a critical consolation prize for Chazelle to launder his film’s obvious Pavlovian satisfaction for pain and gain.
Both films risked prophesizing Chazelle’s own potential doom, his commitment to precision overtaking any real moral, emotional, or ethical perspective on the objects of his gaze. To put it bluntly, Chazelle fancied his characters as tormented souls, poets trapped in silver suits, but one wonders whether the successes of those characters were important in light of Chazelle’s failures, especially La La Land’s rather dubious inability to consider jazz as either a problem of thought or a necessarily mediated endeavor that was about navigating the push and pull between vision and pragmatism. (This push and pull, it must be mentioned, perhaps prophetically seemed only to be understood by La La Land’s black characters, who, seemingly unbeknownst to Chazelle, conjure the spirit of John Coltrane, and Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin writing about him, in claiming that jazz isn’t some primordial essence to be reclaimed or some classically transcendent escape from reality by returning to the past. Rather, it is an intellectual navigation of the present, one which prophetically attempts to modify itself, resisting stagnancy, often simply to survive. While the character played by Ryan Gosling in that film thought of jazz as noble improvisation, the other characters seemed to recognize Baldwin’s famous American riddle: “but who can afford to improvise at these prices?”)
Compared to either of those films, this film is hyper-attuned to the tensions of a main character played by Ryan Gosling, and, especially, to the limits of his sense of self. Mobilizing a reduced, muted palette and a soundscape that vacillates from the lyrically vague (on earth) to the brutally battering (in space), Chazelle’s new film is much cannier and more adroit at questioning its own beauty, even its own vision. Tacitly exploring our own ability to analyze Armstrong and leaving him entirely at arm’s length, we’re left to decipher stray vibrations on his face not as epiphanies of a tortured soul but as possible intimations of a man who may, in point of fact, be much more boring than you or I. Studiously boring, in other words, a working-stiff played by Ryan Gosling with no delusions of personal deification, a man who fancies himself neither a sublimated soul trapped in the cogs of bureaucracy or an Icarus daring to rise to the son but a regular dude happy to do his job, often to the detriment of his family, specifically wife Janet (Claire Foy) and his children.
Certainly, Chazelle and writer John Singer load the film with intimations of lurking tragedy, particularly personal loss (the death of Armstrong’s daughter Karen (Lucy Stafford) from cancer) reverberating through his own grounded, Midwestern ennui. They also suggest, mostly implicitly, Armstrong’s quiet striving for a kind of transcendence from mortal confines, be it through literally escaping Earth’s stratosphere or through the name he’ll be afforded for centuries as Earth’s First Man. Chazelle, so fascinated in his other films by some clichéd dialectic between the glamour of achievement and the toxic undercurrents coursing beneath, can’t resist courting this kind of self-critical mythologizing of his hero by cutting him down to size, by rendering his plight an existential condition, rather than just a job. Armstrong’s workaday competence in First Man can’t but occasionally be filtered through the dramatic lexicon of existential exhaustion. The quotidian can’t just be quotidian. To counterpoint the transcendence of the cosmic reaches of personal achievement, earth sometimes seems a vacuum in this film. Which is to say: it’s still a pretty clichéd story about overcoming life’s limits, but at least First Man is less invested in the artist as tortured soul than the artist as iconographic type, a man so certain in his aspirations that he doesn’t even allow himself to be tortured. The film thus lazily reproduces the sense of a person achieving an artistic high through personal achievement, but its attitude toward the sacrifices made in the name of that achievement is complicated by the fact that this Neil Armstrong does not seem to notice them. Perhaps he can’t.
Perhaps this attitude, Armstrong’s or otherwise, is why First Man is Chazelle’s most restrained, mournful, and non-prescriptive film thus far, and the only one to dabble in competing and potentially contradictory tones and registers rather than tendentiously laboring under one simple tone pretending, by dint of its obvious technical virtuosity, to be a harmony of many. If, then, First Man is almost a comically obvious literalization of his pet themes on paper, Chazelle’s newfound maturity, or at least judiciousness, as a cinematic thinker allows for many interpretations of this theme, treating Armstrong as a fabric to be felt, pondered, and contemplated, not easily understood. Monomaniacal, on the surface, he also might be aloof, or just trivial. When the protagonists of La La Land cut loose on the dance floor, the domineering drama was a calculated fight between two obvious desires: personal success in an artistic endeavor and the romantic entanglements which might distract. But when Armstrong’s wife and Armstrong dance to the “Lunar Rhapsody” waltz, we’re unsure of what this elusive and elliptical film signals, if anything. There’s some sense that this empathetic embrace evokes no intimacy at all; Armstrong seems, rather, to be traipsing around with the inner confines of his mind. Rather than turning his insides outward for the camera, bearing his darkest secrets for us, he keeps his persona close-to-the-vest, defining a character not of explosive presences but ghostly absences – of emotion, possibly even of depth.
Of course, Chazelle also does get to show off, but while his previous films conspicuously micromanage their aesthetics and tire with their calculated gracefulness, as when La La Land lards itself up with the weight of dozens of edifying cinematic forebears in order to pretend to float off the earth, First Man consciously emphasizes its own exhaustion. The three sequences where Armstrong does ascend are assaultive assemblages, cacophonous displays of not only the uncertainty of perspective but the unfathomable instability of the most heroic of technologies; ungoverned by any sense of technical beauty, the ships Armstrong ascends in feel like purely functional constructions, glimpsed by Linus Sandgren’s camera elusively and never with the militaristic, worshipful eye a Michael Bay might bring to the material. (The same can be said of composer Justin Hurwitz’ melancholic score and editor Tom Cross’ subjective editing rhythms).
Temptation would be to turn these ascents into Armstrong’s potential crucifixes, sacrificing his social life in the name of the better of mankind, but they feel more like iron maidens: brutal, unforgiving, and perhaps unworthy of any metaphorical weight. While, say, Gravity weaponized every formal conceit in the book (and invented many more) for an all-enveloping abyss meant to elevate, iconographically, the daring of a sole woman to conquer the abyss, First Man’s visuals signal a different kind of blinkered perceptual limitation, not one rooted in the essential and infinite non-conquerability of space but in the limits of humankind to do so. And, honestly, the moral worth of doing so in the first place.
There are flaws in First Man, although most are collateral damage wrought by conscious decisions rather than mistakes rooted in failures of spirit. Perhaps by necessity, and certainly by intent, every other character in the film, from Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) to boss-man Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) to best-friend Ed White (Jason Clarke) is an absent canvas of sorts, a blip in the background for Armstrong. But this too has its benefits. If the film’s perspective is (mostly) allayed with those men who fly rather than those (say, the Vietnam protestors briefly intimated) who are occluded in this gaze, even here the film’s portrayal of Armstrong – as distracted subject – reads not necessarily as endorsement but also disavowal, or at least hard-earned skepticism. The vacuity of the film’s otherwise arbitrary and pro forma references to the social protests of the movement refract backwards onto Armstrong and a mid-century America that was often too content to move forward, upward, and outward (into space, or other forms of modernity) rather than dare look to the margins of society.
First Man will never go toe to toe with, say, Sun Ra’s Space is the Place, an Afro-futurist masterpiece from 1973 that contests the American fantasy of space travel writ-large and braves truly alternative perspectives on futurity. It asks questions about what truly escaping society’s stratosphere might mean if escape is understood as contesting the limits of that society through social criticism and political action. But after the disastrously (or at least uneasily) dismissive judgement toward the African-American jazzmen in La La Land (Gosling’s protagonist contrapuntally dignified as the “real” soul of jazz, as it were), Chazelle’s new film at least motions toward the lapses in its vision of American men and American machines on a distinctly contorted journey toward indefinite ends. Although Chazelle obviously empathizes with Armstrong’s unshatterable conviction, it’s played less as a monolithic and mythologizing high for the film to feed on than a conundrum to examine, the film refusing to restage any mythopoetic or fetishistic triumph of the will when impressively Armstrong breaks a new barrier.