The question of why we went to the moon is batted around Damien Chazelle’s First Man like a piece of crumpled-up paper by a cat with waning interest. Among the hypotheses, there’s the notion that it could influence young people by expanding their horizons. Additionally, during his interview for the astronaut gig, protagonist Neil Armstrong (played by a stoic Ryan Gosling) is asked why he thinks space flight is important. “I had a few opportunities in the X15 to observe the atmosphere,” says the test pilot. “It was so thin. Such a small part of the earth you could barely see it at all. And when you’re down here in the crowd and you look up, it looks pretty big and you don’t think about it too much, but when you get a different vantage point, it changes your perspective. I don’t know what space exploration will uncover but I don’t think it will be exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it’ll be more of the fact that it allow us to see things that maybe we shoulda seen a long time ago but just haven’t been able to until now.”
Beyond these vague and shallow philosophical musings, the most concrete indication we’re given is simple glory: After Russia beat the U.S. to the successful launch of a satellite and to putting a human in space, the U.S. arched higher in that pissing contest and finally put men on the moon on July 20, 1969.
Though Chazelle’s film features period-specific footage of protests and citizens criticizing the pouring of money into a program with no immediate proof of reward, you get the feeling you aren’t supposed to question the motivation to put men on the moon with much scrutiny. This is because Chazelle’s motivation aligns so well with the U.S.’s—First Man also comes seeking glory. It is the kind of big, long, boring movie full of white men that has traditionally played so well at awards shows, quintessential Oscarbait about supposedly big and important events made by a white man who was named Best Director at the 2017 Oscars for another big, boring movie (La La Land). This is what Chazelle, who also directed 2014's thrilling Whiplash, does now.
In some ways, First Man gestures beyond typical Oscarbait—you can feel Chazelle’s conflict between making a prestige flick about white dudes and understanding contemporary woke imperatives. First Man spends more time with astronauts’ wives than other movies of this ilk (say, Apollo 13). Scenes flip between Neil working at NASA or in space and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) at home taking care of her unruly male children. “Her job is important, too,” the movie suggests. It’s not wrong, but Janet is nonetheless cast in Neil’s shadow (she listens to radio transmissions of her husband’s trip to space at home) and she is afforded no domestic equivalent to Neil’s moon walk. The contrast feels ultimately patronizing—if Chazelle (via a script by Josh Singer based on James R. Hansen’s Neil Armstrong biography, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong) really cared about Janet, he’d tell the story of the moon landing entirely through her perspective, her husband’s achievement as background ambiance to her life story. But that’s not what this movie is because that’s not the way these things work.
Foy does the best with what she has, which are a lot of extremely dull scenes. Gosling is fine as Armstrong, but he’s playing a character whom Chazelle doesn’t even seem to grasp. Even on Earth, where the movie spends the majority of its excruciating 140-minute running time, Gosling’s Armstrong is as distant as another galaxy. He regards everything with slightly wall-eyed look as though his vision is located in the bridge of his nose, speaks in a convincing Midwestern accent, and never quite lets anyone in on his motivation. We return repeatedly to his grieving over his daughter Karen, who died at the age of 2. That’s about as much insight as we get.
First Man manages to lift itself out of stasis in scenes that take place up in the air. The climactic moon-landing bit is fine—it envelops you in a dark, alien world where not much was done beyond some bouncing. Completely invigorating, though, is the opening scene in which Neil pushes an X15 just outside of the atmosphere—Chazelle grippingly transmits the claustrophobia of being so high up in a tiny metal box that’s as rickety as a carnival ride. When Neil finally does approach space, we see the earth’s reflection on his helmet, the horizon line hitting right at his eyes. It’s a lovely shot that leaves you wanting more, but First Man ultimately leaves you hanging, like the atmosphere that Neil bounces off of and has trouble reentering as that opening scene goes on to portray.
The movie, with its apathetic whimper of a final scene reunion between Neil and Janet, is both grandiose and underwhelming. I left First Man less certain than ever about the actual practical worth of the U.S.’s moon landing, which in part at the time served as a distraction from civil rights struggles that still have yet to be reconciled. Clearly we had to start somewhere in our exploration of space, but we’re barely closer to colonizing another planet, and time is running out. If what we are to glean is that this is another example of the journey being more important than the destination, well, that’s a rather confusing lesson from a story about a trip to the moon. With the clarity of humanity’s impending extinction sharpening daily like resolution of televisions with each technological advancement, it becomes harder to celebrate the achievements of our species—if we cannot save ourselves from doom, those achievements are ultimately shortcomings and progress is just an abstraction. If we’re all gone in 20 years, the moon landing will be just a nice try. I guess you could say that about all human activity, for that matter (and after all, movies have to be about something), but the utter scale and self-seriousness with which Chazelle handles this material feels particularly oppressive. You’re supposed to interpret all this material as important because he said so in a movie that’s important because Hollywood and (often overexcited, festival-going) film critics are saying so. Yawn.