First Man, Politics, and Art

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Damian Chazelle’s new movie about Neil Armstrong, First Man, has drawn the ire of Armond White in the National Review. Interesting how a film which so beautifully examines one of the crowning achievements of the human race can be so misunderstood, both artistically and politically.

The Apollo 11 lunar landing, as depicted in “First Man” (the B-Roll, with film crew walking on the “moon” along with the astronauts).

White’s review accuses Chazelle of failing to portray the moon landing as a glorious, triumphal feat by superheroes destined to crush all rivals. Or rather, by American superheroes. Apparently, White’s ideal film version would have been “Lunar Team America”.

“Team America: World Police” is a 2004 satirical film by the makers of “South Park.” Fuck Yeah! It makes me wonder why Neil Armstrong didn’t take automatic weapons to the moon. Surely he would have been much safer.

One of the “proofs” of Chazelle’s malign intention to denigrate American accomplishment is this:

None of the lead cast — Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, Claire Foy as his wife, Janet, Jason Clarke as astronaut Ed White, and Ciarán Hinds as Robert Gilruth, director of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center — are U.S. citizens. This oddity is neither an accident nor a meaningless professional coincidence.

I don’t know how White defines “lead cast” but Cory Stoll who plays Buzz Aldrin, and Kyle Chandler, who plays Deke Slayton, are both Americans (with much larger roles than Ciarán Hinds). Ryan Gosling starred in Chazelle’s last movie and the two men clearly have a close working relationship. Was Chazelle supposed to ditch him just so he could hire an American? That is absurd. As for Claire Foy, she’s one of the hottest actors on the screen these days, her talent is obvious, and her Midwestern accent is flawless. No American director in his (or her) right mind would pass up the chance to work with Foy… unless he had a strange aversion to foreigners. Sadly, Mr. White’s xenophobia is shared by all too many these days.

Cory Stoll, center, as Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon.

Next we hear this complaint:

Presenting the U.S. space program as not so much a military endeavor as a hotbed of sexual chauvinism, racism, and arrogance encourages a facile historical conclusion.

NO! NASA was specifically created under President Eisenhower to conduct non-military space activity and to encourage peaceful applications of space science. For military space applications we have…well, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Marines. At the very least. Is it too much to ask that we have a scientific agency NOT devoted to weapons of war?

I grew up a few miles away from the Vehicle Assembly Building, seeing this view regularly. I always thought of NASA as a civilian agency devoted to science.

I saw zero evidence that the film intends to expose a “hotbed” of sexual chauvinism, racism or arrogance in the space program. Certainly there was racism, as we know from Hidden Figures. And there was plentiful sexism in the 1960s. Chazelle could easily have shown the all-boys club at NASA making misogynist jokes or visiting strip joints on the beach, as many of them surely did. Instead, he shows them treating Janet Armstrong with respect and dignity. In Mission Control, I noticed at least one Black male engineer. I presume that this is a historically accurate detail, deliberately included by Chazelle.

This non-celebratory “history” is as disaffected as Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and similarly misuses the towering IMAX screen to be unimpressive. When Chazelle finally reveals the lunar surface, the landscape is not eerily still, but banal: The screen’s breadth portrays anonymity or claustrophobia inside the space capsule.

Now, this is really interesting. White is angry because he finds the depiction of space flight “unimpressive” and “banal.” He seems not to recognize that Chazelle made an artistic choice to show us space flight as we almost never see it: from the perspective of a person actually performing it. Of course it’s claustrophobic inside the Command Module! It’s less than thirteen feet in diameter! What was White expecting, the Tardis? Of course you can’t see much from inside there: the forward windows were only 8 x 13 inches! I’d be surprised if Chazelle didn’t actually make the movie windows larger, in order to afford us a more expansive view than the astronauts themselves had.

Viewing the moon through the tiny windows of the Command Module of Apollo 11.

Chazelle avoids showing us an external shot of liftoff in the Gemini scenes, and we don’t in fact see a launch from the “outside” until Armstrong’s final space mission, with Apollo 11. Yes, the sight of a launch is stirring to onlookers, and Chazelle chooses to delay that impact until it can have its full effect.

What you DON’T see, by design, for most of the movie.

Mostly, though, what we see is the fact that astronauts were sealed inside rickety, juddering tin cans, bolted together with rivets, which often had to be steered by hand. This was not the Starship Enterprise. This was a contraption built with elbow grease, ingenuity, and (I suspect) a bit of duct tape somewhere. Yes, Apollo 11 did have a computer on board. In terms of performance, it was the equivalent of a Radio Shack TRS-80. Imagine going to the moon like that! What could better embody the spirit of adventure, exploration, and scientific endeavor?

They got there by the seat of their pants. Literally.

A rare smile from lead Ryan Gosling. But I think this is the B-Roll.

Not only is the realistic depiction of space flight insufficiently glossy for Mr. White, he also demands that the astronauts be given relentlessly cheerful and submissive Stepford Wives, lest anyone think that the race to space took a personal toll on the men and women who lived it:

But before that big letdown, Chazelle has already deflated our hopes by “equal-time” pandering to the wife’s unrelenting resentments and skepticism. Her dead-eyed nagging exposes Armstrong’s lack of parenting skill and disdains his inarticulate solitude. (Why did she marry him?)

This is an overtly woman-hating, woman-fearing reaction to the strength we see in Claire Foy’s Janet. Foy has a kind of wound-up, fiery tension which seems controlled but volatile; her jutting chin and staring eyes suggest a woman who isn’t afraid to challenge and criticize a man. (Which she does, succinctly and forcefully, when her access to information about her husband’s safety is suddenly cut off during Neil’s Gemini mission.)

Oooh, she’s so scary! Dear NR, please find a film critic who’s a bit more secure in his masculinity, OK?

No doubt Mr. White of the National Review would have preferred someone more traditionally feminine, with a Fox-ready blonde mane instead of Janet’s (real-life) boyishly cropped dark hair. By Chazelle’s account, Janet wasn’t Suzy Sunshine. That’s how she rolled. Deal with it, Armond!

Janet Armstrong was a beautiful, strong woman, according to her son Mark “the real power behind the throne.”

White sees Neil Armstrong’s emotional restraint as suitably manly, whereas Janet Armstrong’s display of the same self-control is gender-deviant, threatening, cold and unattractive. Janet’s “nagging” comes in the form of a demand that Neil actually say goodbye to his sons before he is launched into space, perhaps never to return. I guess that was too much to ask.

Imagine telling your son that you’re leaving him, and you may not come back.

No, National Review, Damian Chazelle didn’t make a propaganda film for the United States. He made a film that explores what it means to pursue a dream which others consider impossible. Even today, far too many people fall prey to the lie that the Apollo lunar program was a hoax. The truth is that it was a testament to the human spirit and the spirit of scientific endeavor, which brought the whole world together to watch, breathlessly, as men sailed the heavens and brought back a piece of the sky.

B-Roll: Robert Gilruth (Ciarán Hinds), the Director of the Manned Space Flight program, reads the statement prepared in case the astronauts were stranded on the moon. ‘For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.’