Grief is the final frontier in the superb ‘First Man’

There is a certain insanity in space travel. A small cylinder, small by the standards of the universe, fused with earthly skills. Screws and bolts and metals; the same principles of your car or your kitchen sink. And yet it will transcend the Earth’s atmosphere, and explore the unknown. Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon’s surface on July 20th, 1969. It is now 2018, some fifty years later, and I remain unable to comprehend how we did it. It is a great unknowable. Perhaps my brain is simply not sophisticated enough to put the pieces together, the how’s and the what’s rendered an incomprehensible mass in my head. I know that we landed on the Moon. But I cannot understand it.

Damien Chazelle seems, somehow, to be in my corner with this. First Man, his biopic about Neil Armstrong and that transcendent trip, is hyper-focussed on the impossibility of it all. Screws rattle and quiver. Rockets creak. The launchpad, in one brilliant sequence, sways as if at sea, the lights above the men moving with impossible unpredictability. This is how we will get to the Moon. When the men are locked into the ship, one of the seatbelts is blocked, unable to latch. “Anyone got a Swiss Army knife?” one engineer shouts. It is space travel as horror show.

First Man opens with Neil Armstrong (a superb Ryan Gosling) and his wife Janet Shearon (Claire Foy) confronting the sickness and eventual death of their young daughter Karen. Armstrong, a reserved man by nature, retreats inward even more in the wake of the loss, all the while becoming more determined than ever to get out into space. He returns to work on Monday, much to the surprise of his co-workers. “Take a few days off,” they say. But he cannot, and it is not as surprising as we would think. His daughter died on this Earth. Her empty bed still sits beside his. Of course he must go back to work. It is simple. There is no room for his grief within this atmosphere.

Damien Chazelle, who won the Oscar for Best Director in 2017, is something of a wunderkind. Young and fresh-faced, his first two features, Whiplash and La La Land were both nominated for Best Picture (the latter, for a few shocking seconds, won it). And for his third feature, he was already onto the biopic territory, a tricky land where even the best of directors sometimes lose their grip. 

That is not the case with First Man, which proves a giant leap for the young director. It is a film of expert craft and emotional maturity, with one of the best scores of the year by Justin Hurwitz. Neil Armstrong is considered a hero by many, and he might be one. He sure has the bravery of one. But Chazelle understands it to be a bravery fueled by stupidity; self-destruction disguised as self-determination.

First Man contains two funerals, and even more deaths. There are mishaps and malfunctions, the kind that leave the world wondering if any of this is even worth it. There are people starving, freezing, dying on this Earth, and we put millions of dollars into leaving it all behind. What is so important about the Moon? What can it bring us that this money cannot? These questions are asked but not answered, mainly because they cannot be. There is no true reason for any of it, except that we want it. When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon and said that famous line, it meant something to millions of people across the world. In First Man, it meant a man, suffocated by loss, finally being able to breathe again.

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