For this month’s next review for Genre Grandeur – Biographical Films here’s a review of First Man (2018) by James of Blogging By Cinemalight
Thanks again to Nick Rehak of French Toast Sunday for choosing this month’s genre.
Next month’s genre has been chosen by Joe of The MN Movie Man and we will be reviewing our favorite Summer Camp Movies.
Please get me your submissions by the 25th of Jun by sending them to firstname.lastname@example.org
Try to think out of the box! Great choice Joe!
Let’s see what James thought of this movie:
First Man (Damien Chazelle ,2018)
“I guess the question I’m asked the most often is: “When you were sitting in that capsule listening to the count-down, how did you feel?” Well, the answer to that one is easy. I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of two million parts — all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”
Astronaut John Glenn
I read James R. Hanson’s biography of astronaut Neil Armstrong, “First Man” some months ago—I’d always been fascinated by the American Space Program of the 1960’s when I was a kid—and I found the book a tedious slog. Despite my interest, it tested my ability to be fascinated by Armstrong’s career, going into such extreme depth as listing Armstrong’s scores during military flight training in the 1960’s and the grind of astronaut training…as well as the author’s fervently pushed sub-text that Armstrong was a mythical figure on a par with Adam. Plus, Armstrong was such a tight-lipped, interior soul that one got the impression that, despite the scrutiny and coverage of his career before and after the first moon landing, the man was pretty much a cipher, so unknowable that the author depended on other people’s impressions to such a large extent that one never really got the sense that you knew the man, and certainly never warmed to him. The flaws were the most interesting things about him: he was an ace test-pilot but a horrible driver, seemingly never able to concentrate on the road, he had a stoicism that kept him apart from those he loved—his grueling schedule usually ensured that, anyway—and he was an innate problem-solver, which did him well at his job of controlling machines, but, on a human level, stymied him, particularly in the challenge of death—of Navy comrades, his only daughter Karen,*** and fellow astronauts (particularly Ed White, his next-door neighbor) killed in the process of the head-long rush to achieve the Moon landing within a ten year time-span.
With Armstrong’s death in 2012, it was probably inevitable that they would make a film of Armstrong’s life.* First Man encapsulates (pun intended) the intense period of Armstrong’s life between the tail-end of his time testing X-15 rocket-planes to the moon landing of Apollo 11, a period of 8 years.** It begins with a disorienting shot looking out through grimy windows from the cockpit of an X-15. The camera buffets wildly. The noise is deafening, from the wind-shear, the clacking instruments, the creaking strains on the metal exterior, the rattling of anything not bolted down in the little compartment, the squawking chatter of the radio. Everything except the rattling of the pilot’s teeth.
That X-15 is strapped to the underside of a B-52 and it will be dropped like a bomb, and, once it’s fallen far enough to safely do so without blowing up its host-plane, the pilot will light up its rocket engines and take the X to its limits (which turned out to be a height of 67 miles and a maximum speed of 4,520 miles per hour). That plummeting drop might be the calmest part of the ride, because once the engines kick in, the X-15 is a shaking, vibrating brick that gets red hot in the friction of the atmosphere. Now the film is in 3-D (I didn’t see it in that format or in IMAX), but, if it was also presented in Sensurround it would be intolerable. Damned effective in communicating what it’s like in that circumstance, but probably beyond what a casual viewer munching popcorn could handle. It’s a neat primer on what First Man does differently in the depiction of space travel that separates it from previous films on the subject in regards to the actual experience of the pioneers doing it.
For First Man, like its subject, is not exactly romantic when it comes to the Conquest of Space, but is, instead, realistic and practical. While most films look at the tiny vessels contrasted with the vastness of the space they’re pushing through, First Man keeps you in the cockpit, from the vantage point of the sailors strapped in for dear life, who are warily watching the attitude indicators of their control panels as opposed to dreamily gazing at the stars out the window. Zero G is not something to be luxuriated in, it’s a problem to be worked around, so that a stray foot doesn’t hit the wrong toggle-switch and the floating clutter doesn’t get in the way of the job.
Armstrong might have been the perfect candidate for the job. He loved flying and he loved the problem-solving of the task, trying to get it “just so” in the engineering from the time he had his siblings throwing out balsa wood airplanes from his window, so he could mark with popsicle sticks stuck in the yard the differences his adjustment would make in their aerodynamics. When the film starts in medias res of that X-15 flight, Armstrong goes too high and too fast, so that he ends up “skipping off the atmosphere” and has to find a radical way to use his attitude jets to give him enough drag to get the X-15 back to the ground. He makes it, but glances are passed between the ground crew: Armstrong’s flights have been shaky lately; something’s going on.
What’s going on is shown in the next scene as a large menacing piece of chrome lowers to the head of a little girl; it is the Armstrong’s daughter, Karen, and the worrying parents, Neil (Ryan Gosling) and Janet (Claire Foy), watch, their arms around each other, stricken—the child is being treated for a brain tumor, and, as we’ll see, Armstrong keeps notebooks on her treatment, just as he does after his X-15 flights, but it’s not going well. And over a shot of Armstrong watching over his sleeping daughter, as his fingers consider the strands of her hair, we hear a deliberate creaking of rope…
…it is the sound of her coffin being lowered into the ground, as Armstrong watches hollow-eyed. There will be flash-backs to the shot of her hair in his hands, the tactile sensation of his daughter later in the movie, but Armstrong, rarely—if ever—mentioned his daughter’s death—at 2 1/2 years old—in the many interviews that he actually would allow. One can speculate, as Hanson, “writing to silence”**** in the biography, did, that his daughter’s death informed the course of Armstrong’s actions for the rest of his life and probably played a hand in his becoming a “deist,” after having been raised by the devoutest of mothers. But, Armstrong’s life was a full one and, no matter how artfully done in the book or movie, it probably can’t be thinned down to making his daughter Karen the “Rosebud” of the movie, the Rosetta Stone that has all the answers.
After these scenes, the film then turns episodic—as so many bio-pics do—between highlights and low-lights in Armstrong’s astronaut career: his applying for NASA and acceptance (during his interview when he’s being questioned, one of the NASA hierarchy starts “I’m sorry about your daughter.” and Armstrong’s reply is “I’m sorry, is there a question?”), some training footage (which will become pertinent later), the deaths of fellow astronauts Elliot See and Charlie Bassett, and Armstrong’s pick as commander of Gemini 8, which would prove an essential stepping-stone to the Apollo moon landing; It’s mission is to rendezvous and dock with a previously launched Agena target, which Armstrong pulls off smoothly until he’s out of communication with Mission Control, at which point the two locked vehicles begin to spin wildly out of control, and Armstrong makes the decision to separate from the target vehicle thinking that it has malfunctioned.
Once that happens, the capsule begins to spin faster—it wasn’t a fault with the Agena, it is with their own capsule, and as it begins to spin faster and faster, approaching speeds that will cause the astronauts to black out, Armstrong shuts down his main thruster systems on the ship, suspecting them as the problem, and uses the forward thrusters for re-entry to bring the vehicle out of its death-tumble, effectively ending the mission as required by NASA protocols. The mission is seen as both a success and a failure—yes, its objective was achieved, but it is aborted early, days before its scheduled conclusion, lest the already used thrusters become essential for an eventual return to Earth .
Once Armstrong is cleared of any failure on his part—he is, in fact, lauded for saving his own life and that of his crew-mate, Dave Scott, he is then used as a NASA ambassador among politicians, and it is on one of those junkets he hears of the Apollo 1 fire, which costs the lives of veteran astronauts Gus Grissom, his neighbor Ed White and Roger Chaffee.***** He also narrowly escapes his own fiery death by his last minute ejection from a lunar landing trainer that malfunctions and loses control.
The rest of the film follows his subsequent training and command for Apollo 11, which, planned to be the first lunar landing if all the objectives are met, is the most prized assignment among the astronauts, but bares heavy responsibility and scrutiny, something that only makes Armstrong withdraw further into his work and away from his family.
The work is isolating, and, given all the unknowns about the lunar surface and whether diseases might be brought back to Earth from contact with the soil, the crew is kept in hermetically sealed chambers for press conferences and maintain a restricted access. As if the suits and pressurized conditions aren’t enough, it seems like layers upon layers are being put between Armstrong and his family. At one point, just before leaving for the isolation before the launch, Armstrong’s wife Janet demands that he sits down with his sons and explains to them the danger of his mission…and that he might not come back, something Armstrong wants to avoid talking about given the company line of “highest confidence in the Mission.” It goes awkwardly and with not the best of resolutions. No one is exactly comforted.
The tensest part of the film is, of course, the Moon Landing itself, as Armstrong has to pilot where no pilot has gone before to a landing field that is nothing but pot-holes that could break one of the lander’s spindly legs, all the time that alarms are going off warning that the computer can’t process all of the information being funneled to it, the lander is low of fuel and running on fumes, and its auto-pilot decides that it’s going to land in a large crater strewn with crippling boulders. Armstrong has to yank control from the targeted systems, try and overshoot the crater’s lip, draining the fuel even more before touching down on another world. It was tense when it was happening live on television 49 years ago, and it’s just as tense when Chazelle has his choice of angles and a galloping soundtrack from his composer Jason Hurwitz.
Damien Chazelle has now made three movies (he’s now 33)—Whiplash, First Man, and La La Land (which was made during the long and complicated pre-production of First Man) and those three movies could not be more different in style, genre, and energy, but each one is a confident and accomplished film about obsession and sacrifice in pursuit of a cherished goal. The other films were wild, fast-moving things that frequently soared, where First Man—which is all about soaring—has its most sublime moments in stillness and incredible silence. One can quibble with Gosling’s performance as Armstrong being too morose, generally—one can’t find any fault in Claire Foy’s performance…at all—as Armstrong may have been restrained but hardly the “Debbie Downer” one might assume from this movie. But, as a portrait of a sacrificing hero, First Man quite triumphantly communicates the measure of a measured man.
* Clint Eastwood and Warner Bros. bought the rights to “First Man” in 2003, but the film never moved forward until acquired by Steven Spielberg for his Dreamworks Studio.
** Although Armstrong’s boyhood fascination with model airplanes is hinted at by the sound of toy engines over the Universal/Dreamworks logos before the first image of the film—in the cockpit of an X-15—appears.
**** “Writing to silence” is a lovely little phrase that you can’t “google” to any accuracy, but refers to the writerly act of speculation when there isn’t anyone alive to provide the inspiration…or rebuttal…to what you commit to the page.
***** Okay, let’s talk about the “flag” controversy. It’s a non-issue, like complaining about no hedge monsters in The Shining. There are flags and stars and stripes all over First Man. But, for some reason…for some people…this discerning mature portrait of an American hero succeeds or fails on whether there’s a scene of planting the American flag on the Moon (we DO see it, by the way, the flag, I mean). Okay, maybe these “critics” have their priorities (or something) “out of whack,” but the filmmakers solved a potential problem that would REALLY get folks up in arms. One of the things that Armstrong revealed in the biography was that when he and Aldrin launched from the Moon’s surface, the blast of the engine basically flattened the flag and knocked it to the ground. It wasn’t stuck in very well as the astronauts had a hell of a time trying to hammer it deep enough into the clay-like lunar surface to make it anything other than precarious. Maybe nobody should mention it. Maybe those folks should find a way to get there and fix it. Maybe they should take a trip to the Moon.