Neither right- nor left-wing, First Man plants its flag in a troubling ambivalence

Photo: Universal Pictures
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It’s kind of hard to believe that First Man has been in theaters for less than a week. Hasn’t the controversy surrounding this movie been raging for a small eternity? Damien Chazelle’s biodrama about Neil Armstrong, the late astronaut and American icon, has already inspired an entire awards season’s worth of hot-take debate, much of it centered on how patriotically (or not) it frames the space race. Reactions to the film have been as divided as the current political climate. One could probably argue that they’re divided because of the current political climate.

The eagle had barely landed before someone took a shot at it. In August, two days after First Man premiered to mostly rapturous reviews at the Venice Film Festival, conservative America caught wind of something it could blow out of proportion: The climactic moon-walk scene, wherein Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) takes his one small step for man, included no shot of him planting the U.S. flag in the lunar soil. “Total lunacy,” tweeted Marco Rubio. Armstrong’s moon-mate Buzz Aldrin weighed in, too, hashtagging his dissent. There was talk that the movie excised the flag entirely—not true, but why let facts interfere with outrage? Meanwhile, that the principle cast is made up heavily, though not entirely, of foreign-born talent (Gosling from Canada, Claire Foy from Britain, Jason Clarke from Australia, Ciarán Hinds from Ireland) threw gas on the argument that First Man was erasing the “America” from a great American achievement. The film finally opened last Friday, after weeks of bloviating detraction from people who hadn’t seen it; its $16.5 million debut was about in line with expectations, though that didn’t stop some from claiming this “underwhelming” box-office showing as a victory for the right.

Plenty have leapt to defend First Man from these premature charges of anti-Americanism, arguing—as Marina Koren has in The Atlantic—that the movie is plainly a stirring tribute to the country’s can-do determination. Thing is, the criticisms aren’t just coming from the right. In recent days, a growing number of complaints have emerged that Chazelle’s movie is, despite the MAGA campaign against it, actually too conservative. “It is a film of deluded, cultish longing for an earlier era of American life,” argues Richard Brody in The New Yorker, calling First Man an “accidental right-wing fetish object.” Armstrong has “no black colleagues, no female colleagues,” Brody continues, echoing frustrations expressed elsewhere that the film ignores the contributions of the non-white, non-male NASA employees that Hidden Figures recently saluted. In fact, that particular critique—oh good, another space story told from the perspective of the white-bread astronauts—got voiced plenty in advance, proving that preemptive, sight-unseen dismissals don’t just come from Trump’s side of the aisle. Even the film’s title, idiomatic though it may be, seemed to position it as an easy target of ridicule, a film out of the step with the moment. First man, really? Right now?

Given all the opposing negative takes, it’s tempting to see Chazelle’s movie as a casualty of the culture war. Straw Man, he might have called it, given some of the bad-faith arguments being made on, ahem, both sides about its alleged (if, per Brody, accidental) partisan stance. First Man, to be clear, shouldn’t be immune to political readings. The space race was political, and so, too, are any choices made about how to depict a key moment of national history, even if the work in question is attempting an apolitical approach. But to position the film firmly on either side of the cultural divide is to actively ignore its ambivalence—a key philosophical tenet of Chazelle’s work, which tends to see both beauty and disturbing folly in the reckless, at-all-costs pursuit of a goal, be it mastering a drum kit, following your impossible showbiz dreams, or blasting off into the cosmos.

One irony of the attempt to damn First Man as essentially conservative or liberal is that it mirrors the way many jockeyed to control and manipulate Armstrong’s own image. Dubbed a “reluctant American hero” by his family, Neil was rarely open or vocal about his own politics, try as some from both parties did to attach him to causes or get him to run for office. First Man adopts not just the perspective but, in many respects, the attitude of its famous subject. For as much as the movie acknowledges the beat-the-Soviets rationale for going to space (even giving us moments of fist-pump gloating at mission control), Chazelle mostly sees Apollo the way Armstrong seems to have: not as a political objective, or a way to glorify country, but just as a job to do well. This is partially what Gosling was getting at in his defense of the movie a few weeks ago, emphasizing Armstrong’s humility. Of course, his reasonable insistence that the man also saw walking on the moon as a “human achievement,” and not a specifically American one, predictably did not defuse the situation.

As personal and even narrow as its vantage may be (some of the film seems to take place not just in the spacecrafts but right inside Neil’s helmet), First Man doesn’t insulate us from outside perspectives, nor does it dismiss them. We get to hear the case against the space race, to understand what it cost both in dollars and human lives—from Armstrong’s wife, Janet (Foy), who often voices the sensible objections to what NASA asked of its rocket men, and from Gil Scott-Heron, whose famous poem “Whitey On The Moon” gets read aloud during a protest-scene montage, reminding the audience of all the earthbound problems the U.S. government ignored or under-funded while reaching for the stars. One could accuse these passages of paying lip service to the dissent—or worse, of reducing the concerns of both the country and Armstrong’s worried family to naysaying noise that this Great Man had to tune out while training to do Great Things. In context, though, they play more like the debate that Armstrong can’t or won’t have—a Greek chorus in the ideological void of his unstoppable, almost mechanical pursuit.

It’s hard not to be amazed by NASA’s achievements. That’s the most compelling case against reading First Man as anti-American: To depict this much willpower, gumption, and drive is, on some level, to glorify it. At the same time, Chazelle never lets us (or Armstrong) forget what was lost forever en route to the moon; “It’s a bit late for that,” our hero remarks when his boss (Kyle Chandler) starts talking about considering the costs of their mission, which of course included the men who died in crashes or burned to death during simulations. The film’s climax is, naturally, a breathtaking spectacle, but First Man doesn’t present it as a celebratory moment, exactly—we get no shots of people cheering from Earth, no backslapping in Houston. Partially, that’s because Chazelle is playing the moon landing as a profoundly solitary experience for Armstrong, almost a religious moment and a cathartic, belated step toward grief management. But it’s also because he’s preserving the solemn tone, perhaps to keep a question hanging indefinitely in the cosmic air: Was it worth it?

There’s a Rorschach quality about Gosling’s performance. For most of the movie, his face is a blank canvas. Perhaps that’s why so many have felt inclined to project a position onto it—and, by extension, onto the movie. Of course, the stoic and proudly apolitical man is an American archetype all its own, one that fits into a certain conservative worldview. (There was a time when Clint Eastwood could have played this role, and probably well.) But Chazelle is way too fixated on the character’s unhealthy obsession to deify him. The film’s most chilling moment isn’t the one where Neil’s friends die during a module malfunction or the extreme crisis of the Gemini 8 flight. It’s the scene where Armstrong explains to his children, with an almost medical remove, that he might not come home from space.

As Gosling plays him and screenwriter Josh Singer writes him, Armstrong is a close relative of Chazelle’s usual stubbornly undeterred artists. In fact, there’s a lot of Andrew Neyman, the bleeding drummer Miles Teller plays in the writer-director’s Whiplash, in First Man’s conception of its subject. That, too, was a movie about someone putting himself through an intense physical crucible to achieve a goal, sidelining everyone and everything in his life in reckless pursuit of glory. Here, again, the question of whether ends justify means reared its head—especially in the movie’s grand finale, when Neyman and his sadistic, punishingly demanding mentor (J.K. Simmons) finally achieve a consummation of their toxic love story. The big-band climax, a musical performance for the ages, is spectacular and stirring and absurdly enjoyable. But the lingering question of what Neyman had to endure, what he had to do to his loved ones and himself, hangs over it. This is ambivalence pushed to a climactic extreme.

A similar dynamic colors First Man. We are amazed by Armstrong’s commitment and perseverance, by what he accomplishes in the grandly majestic finale. But we’re disturbed, too, by the costs—by the men who had to die in the process, and by the way he always privileges his work over his family. Maybe that cocktail of emotions applies equally to Chazelle’s attitude toward NASA and the space program. And maybe there’s something uniquely American about the kind of ambition and individualistic drive—the will to win no matter what—that seems to power so many of the filmmaker’s protagonists, this one definitely included. Is the determination we had to go to the moon so different from the destructive push of manifest destiny or whatever kept Oppenheimer toiling away on The Manhattan Project? That’s the film’s political conscience: an awe and unease at what Americans can accomplish when they set their minds and fragile human bodies to it. It’s not so easily color-coded, so simply relegated to a party line or ticket.