Culture Magazine

First Man, a Remark Or Two on How It Achieves Its Effects

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

I saw First Man last fall when it came out. Last night I saw it again, on a large TV. I find it impressive, still. As I argued last year, the film reaches for a sense of the sacred. It’s not an action-adventure film, though there is adventure in it, and action too. It’s more contemplative.
How does it work? That’s what my few remarks are about.
The film opens on Neil Armstrong, the protagonist, in a test flight of an airplane. While we do have some shots of the plane from the outside and at a distance, most of the shots are of the planes cockpit, either from Armstrong’s point-of-view has he looks about the cockpit, often at his hands activating controls, or through the window at the sky. There’s trouble, the image vibrates, a reflection of the plane’s motions. We hear voices (I think). We know Armstrong’s going to pull out of it because, well, after all, he did go to the moon and that’s not yet happened. There’s a strong sense of being enclosed, being trapped, of being at the edge of desperation.
No sense of wide open spaces, no wild blue yonder.
And then it’s over. Armstrong lands the plane, gets out, and the film moves to a different register.
Now we see Armstrong and his wife dealing with Karen’s cancer (his young daughter) – I assume it was cancer, perhaps we’re told, but there’s radiation treatment. We see Neil playing with Karen; we see her playing. And then we hear the sound of a winching lowering a small casket into a grave; we see Armstrong, his wife, and so at the funeral.
And then it’s over. The film moves to a different register. We see Armstrong at work, in his office. His boss offers him time off, which he declines. He wants/needs to work. He scans his desktop, see a NASA newsletter with a story about the Gemini program. He decides to apply.
Was that decision a response to, a way of coping with, his daughter’s death? Who knows – and the scope of that question is strictly within the film itself and has nothing to do with the real Neil Armstrong, though, of course, this is a biopic about him. Armstrong doesn’t say that he’s applying to Gemini because his daughter has died. He says nothing at all about why he applied. He just does.
But the film creates a connection by virtue of its narrative strategy. First we see a dicey test flight. And then we cut to Karen’s illness. No causal connection is asserted or implied there, nor would I think that anyone infers cause. All we have is sequence, juxtaposition.
That’s all we have. Which is the point. Within the imaginative space that is First Man, that’s what we’ve got. Two things: a test flight, a death in the family. And then a third: Armstrong applies to Gemini.
Let’s skip over most of the film. What’s the last thing we see Armstrong do on the moon? He drops Karen’s identity bracelet into a crater. That action asserts a connection between his daughter’s death and his decision to enter the astronaut program. And that connection is how this film asserts the sacred quality of walking on the moon. The next shot has him safely back on earth. And then he’s in quarantine, where he meets his wife. They cannot touch, directly, but they touch the window separating them in the same spot. No talk.
And the film ends.
I skipped a lot, but I don’t intend to fill that in, not here, though I’m inclined to think that there is value in describing what happens all the way through, scene by scene, perhaps even shot by shot. But this is not the place to attempt that.
To a first approximation we see the juxtaposition of Armstrong’s professional life as an astronaut and his private life as husband and father, of (now) two sons. These narrative strands move in parallel.
And they collide just before Armstrong is to go to the moon. He’s packing his bags and hopes to slip out of the house without talking to his sons. His wife won’t allow this. She knows that he might not return, as does he, and wants him to acknowledge that to his sons. He talks with them and acknowledges that, yes, he might not return.
But he does return, after he’s left his daughter’s identity bracelet on the moon. Does he tell anyone about that? Who knows? But likely not.
And that’s how Chazelle, the director, creates a sense of the sacred – where I’m using Chazelle as a figure for the collective entity that created this film. Just why that creates the effect that it does, that’s worth thinking about. But not here, not now.
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My other posts on First Man:

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