The dunderheads at NBC don’t like it, which means that it is probably GREAT! Can’t wait to see it!
Once again, Americans are making movies about that time we went to the moon. Two years ago, “Hidden Figures” kicked off a mini rebirth of the genre, with a look at how racism caused NASA’s space program to hide the real geniuses behind the Apollo missions. This year’s “First Man” is a far more traditional (and far more white male focused) look at America’s path to the moon — with a possibly unintended underlying message.
“First Man” trailers make it seem kind of like a 2018 version of “The Right Stuff.” The dramatic retelling of the Gemini and Apollo space programs feels like it was supposed to be a testament to American ingenuity. But what the movie ultimately reveals is not American exceptionalism, but rather American hubris. As we relive the glory days of the space program, we are also treated to an inside look at how the richest, most scientifically advanced Western nation burned through billions of dollars in order to accomplish a single-minded, seemingly crazy objective. And how they accomplished it, almost in spite of themselves.
One might argue that having these flaws front and center makes for a better, deeper film. In some cases it does feel more realistic to depict the moments of failure, both small and large, and to remind audiences that many of the catastrophes of the space program were due to carelessness and our heedless desire to be first. Men were being belted into canisters and perched on top of megatons of explosives without reliable seat belts. But at the same time, this realism also drives home how reckless the whole enterprise was. We didn’t get there because we were a whole lot better than the competition. We got there because that time they were lucky enough not to blow up.
“First Man” focuses on the story of Neil Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, beginning when he was a test pilot for NASA in the early 1960s. When his baby daughter Karen dies of cancer in 1962, Armstrong decides to join the astronaut program, putting him on a collision course with the moon — and greatness. Gosling’s performance is a tour de force, and his co-stars do an excellent job of bolstering his Oscar chances. But Gosling and director Damien Chazelle make the choice to play Armstrong as a stoic, unemotional man who comes off as rather unlikable. (Don’t worry. Buzz Aldrin comes off much worse.) By refusing to have his character serve as the movie’s emotional center, Armstrong winds up being a bit of a cipher.
Into that void rushes the reality of history. Today’s audiences have certain expectations for what a film like “First Man” will look like. The ability to take CGI and make something fantastic feel real means that moviegoers are in for a visual assault. “First Man” is to the space program what “Saving Private Ryan” was to the Normandy beaches of World War II; it details what it was to go into space in terrifying realistic detail.