TIFF18: First Man

You know the story. The whole world knows the story. Neil Armstrong, an aeronautical engineer and Apollo astronaut, was the first man to walk on the moon. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – that was him. American hero, international phenomenon, global icon. First Man is his biopic, tracing the 304400 km path he took from humble test pilot to living legend.

First Man is Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to the ethereal La La Land, which made him the youngest Best Director to ever be awarded the prize at the Oscars. To say I was highly anticipating screening this movie at TIFF is like saying Armstrong was kind of an interesting guy – a resounding understatement. But when the lights came back up, I was feeling a little…underwhelmed? Bored? Disconnected.

Feeling uncomfortable with my initial reaction, I turned to my favourite critic in a whole cinema full of press, and invited him to discuss and unpack this movie over sushi burritos. First – Ryan Gosling. He gives a terrifically reserved, very stoic performance as a famously quiet, attention-shirking man. Armstrong is surprisingly passive when encountering life-altering choices. He’s dispassionate. He’s obsessed with technical detail and getting things right but he never seems overly impressed with the great heights involved in his job. Wait a minute – is it possible Neil Armstrong was on the spectrum? To be clear, I’ve never heard that he’s an Aspie, or had high-IQ autism. Nor have I heard it mentioned in the context of this film. However, his wife at the time, Janet (played in the Film Title: First Manmovie by Claire Foy), called him “emotionally disconnected.” In the film, he struggles to speak to fellow astronauts and even his own children, and goes out of his way  not to. But it’s not that he doesn’t care. He clearly grieves the loss of his infant daughter, and thinks of her often. And he’s sensitive to the deaths of his colleagues. But these are internal struggles that rarely get expressed, or expressed correctly. He’s not unfriendly or unapproachable, exactly, but human connection is hard for him. Is undiagnosed autism what Gosling is hinting at with such a performance? And with that question in mind, the rest of the movie unlocks before me.

I trust Damien Chazelle as a director. If I’m feeling underwhelmed, isn’t it because he wants me to? After all, this is the guy who made me sweat while watching a movie about jazz (sorry, jazz). If he wanted me soaring among the stars, he certainly has the vision not to mention the skill. He swept me away with La La Land; I danced out of the theatre even as I ugly-snot-cried. If my feet are more firmly planted on the ground for this film, there has to be a reason.

What if Chazelle is attempting to put us not just in Armstrong’s shoes, but in his head? I felt very removed during the movie, but maybe that’s exactly his intention: to show the greatest, most ambitious, most adrenaline-fueled achievement in the history of humankind through the eyes of someone who doesn’t express feelings in the usual way.

Whoa.

Now that I’m re-examining the film through this  new filter, I realize that I don’t remember Gosling smiling even once in the whole 120+ minutes. He doesn’t cry when he’s sad, nor does he ever appear to be particularly happy. At a pre-flight press conference, a journalist asks him how it feels to find out he’ll be the first to walk on the moon, to which he simply responds “I’m pleased.” Finding this response lacking, the reporter probes further, asking him to compare it to finding out he’d been selected for NASA’s astronaut program, to which Armstrong can only repeat “I’m pleased.” Although he’s certainly capable of more complex emotions, communicating them seems impossible. Another scene that struck me is one in which Armstrong is trying to sneak out of the house without saying goodbye. He’ll be gone for 2 months, strapped to a bomb that will explode him out of the atmosphere to land or crash on the moon and no one knows for sure if he’ll ever come back. His family has attended the funerals of many friends and colleagues who’ve perished in various missions. His two young sons are sad and scared and he tried to sneak away. His wife has to beg him to say a few words, but “I love you” are not among them. Knowing his father doesn’t like hugs, his brave son offers a handshake instead, not knowing if this is to be their last embrace.

This film is strangely muted, with even the score a tad alienating with unfamiliar instruments. And check out that photo from above – doesn’t that blue wash make him seem lonely, and isolated? This great adventure in the sky should be exciting and staggering, but the biggest sensation we’re given is physical discomfort as we’re rumbled and tumbled about during liftoff sequences. Not that Armstrong complains. There’s no swelling pride or patriotism, no heroic speeches or manly tears. In fact, there’s very little awe. In the vastness of space, the screen is often filled with a solitary face. I wonder if the emphasis on extreme close-ups is supposed to symbolize Armstrong’s challenge in deciphering non-verbal cues, or if it’s merely to give us a better view of his consistently flat affect.

The camera seems to offer things up from Armstrong’s point of view – one small chunk of moon dust rather than an entire lunar landscape. His trip into the infinite universe feels very small, and very  humble, but he’s not unmoved. He just has a narrow focus, more fascinated by his own boot print than by the multitude of stars. Does Armstrong feel more at home in the empty quiet of space? Maybe. But we’ll never know because he sure as heck didn’t say so.

If my little theory is correct, I wish I had know it going in rather than piecing it together in hindsight. What more would I have noticed? I can’t wait to re-watch and find out. I can’t wait to appreciate Armstrong and his accomplishments in this new light, and to celebrate Chazelle as a director who can so completely immerse and saturate you in someone else’s experience. Remarkable.

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22 thoughts on “TIFF18: First Man

  1. J.

    Very intrigued by your review, Jay. I probably wouldn’t have been that fussed about this one at all… your discussion there about why you maybe felt somewhat underwhelmed has convinced me to check it out.

    Liked by 3 people

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  2. kaddietucker

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, and probably won’t, but I read that the planting of the American flag on the moon was left out because the makers thought that the giant leap for mankind should not be seen as an example of American greatness. I think that sucks. Nothing wrong in showing pride in your country’s accomplishments.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Jay Post author

      No, that’s just right-wing hype stirred up by someone who thought he came off badly in the movie – and now he’s proving them right by being an ass in real life too.

      Liked by 2 people

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      1. Jay Post author

        Besides which, this isn’t a movie about the moon landing. It’s a movie about Neil Armstrong. When he’s up there, he isn’t thinking about his country, he’s thinking about his family, about his deceased daughter. It’s beautiful and sad and perfect just the way it is.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Jay Post author

      The flag is not left out, they just don’t make a special scene depicting the planting of it. Which makes sense, since the movie covers 8 years in just 2 hours, you can’t show everything.

      Liked by 1 person

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  3. Birgit

    I want to see this film and I will but, if Armstrong had high functioning Autism or Asberger’s which it sounds this might be it, a film should still hold ones’ attention and feel wrapped up in it. If I feel disconnected or I find it slow, this is on the director and it is a fault. Let’s hope I am wrong. I was not overly impressed with la-La Land although i loved the opening number but Ryan can’t sing worth beans

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    1. Jay Post author

      Ryan isn’t a professional singer, and he isn’t meant to sound like one. It’s not meant to come off like a polished Broadway musical, it’s supposed to be two people falling so swiftly and madly in love they can’t help but sing about it, and the lack of polish is deliberate, so we feel like it could be you or I.

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      1. Birgit

        Oh, I know that is the intention but I think it sucks…hahahaaa. If I want to hear bad singing, I will start and watch as the dogs and cats come to visit me:)

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  4. Rose Dymock

    Got to admit, the premise doesn’t really intrigued me and I’m always a bit meh about Gosling.

    Your review was brilliant though, really capturing the oddities and complex nature of the film. If anything it’s made me interested in watching, I’m just not sure I’m going to spend money on seeing it however.

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. Liz A.

    I was not a fan of La La Land. It felt very LA (I’m local to LA, and if felt very local), but the movie… Meh. So, I’m thinking you may be overthinking the movie. However, I could be wrong. Have you seen the director interviewed? I wonder what he’s said about it.
    (But I love this kind of movie, so I might be more predisposed to like it.)

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    1. Jay Post author

      Well yeah, I’m a movie critic, that’s pretty much my job. Except we call it ‘analysis’ not ‘over-thinking’ – it’s how we interpret art.
      And while you may not have liked La La Land, he did get rewarded by all of his peers as being the year’s best, so I think it’s a valid hit and that he has a lot more to say with his movies than you may be giving him credit for.

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  6. thebookwormdrinketh

    This sounds absolutely remarkable… I love the thought that Armstrong was on the spectrum!! Now, THAT’S something to think about!! 🤔 I can understand this movie causing some uncomfortable feelings… It definitely sounds a little… Unnerving almost?

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