Having not seen his entire filmography, I nonetheless feel comfortable asserting that Ryan Gosling’s raison d’etre is to make movies about the essence of masculinity. I am convinced this is a deliberate choice. Lars and the Real Girl, Blue Valentine, and The Notebook all touch on aspects of male romance and desire. Drive, Only God Forgives, and The Believer all illustrate different extents of male violence and duty. We’re all aware of the male-feels that Gosling depicts in Bladerunner 2049, and even the Oscar-bait film La La Land lets him show off male charm and suaveness. But it is Gosling’s role as Neil Armstrong in First Man where he embodies everything a man can and should be.
This is a movie all rightists needs to see, and it captures every element of the diaspora of ideas today. Neil is a hard working family man who has a duty to his work. The movie very clearly promotes Western civilization as an end in itself. It does not bend over to the politically correct in terms of diversity casting or progressive messages. This is an aesthetically compelling movie too, not a drab biopic with a political message or a hyper-stylized comic book movie. And perhaps above all it is accelerationist in its outlook.
At its core this is the story of one man. So it should be no surprise that the movie spends a lot of time on Neil and his family, and also the friends they had around them. He is a profound family man in the best sense of the phrase, loyal to his wife and utterly endeared with his children. The movie begins with the death of Armstrong’s young daughter to cancer, and this becomes the driving force for the movie. Through the whole film we see a subdued suffering in spite of the unearthly forces Armstrong faced. At one point a NASA board member asked him if the death of his daughter would affect him. His response: ‘It would be unreasonable to think that it would not.’ But it is not said whether this would be a detrimental effect or a positive one. In the end it is positive as she becomes the inspiration for Armstrong, and on the moon he leaves a memento to his lost daughter. He never talks about it, the perfect face of a stoic man who refuses to talk about tragedy even to his male friends or wife, and it is this determination that drives the movie. Yes, husband and wife undergo stress, but they are understanding of one another and the most touching moment is the last scene where, with Armstrong in quarantine, they touch each other through the glass. No words are spoken but you feel the connection. We’re used to seeing dysfunctional families and divorced parents, but here the nuclear family is realized not as all phony smiles, but as something for which to struggle.
Of course, the meat of the movie here is the space race and the struggle between two super powers. Russia is left out mostly, their achievements used as a launch pad for the plot. We see the endless failures that NASA went through, the sacrifice of good men in the shadow of modernity. Unruly test flights, capsule explosions, and an out-of-control lunar lander all provide high tension, but also the endless battle with technology that is necessary to reach the stars, metaphorically and literally. The movie does a decent job of showing how Western civilization as we know it wouldn’t be possible without a few false starts and leaps of faith. I saw the movie on Columbus Day, and there is an appropriate scene near the start of the movie where the lunar module is compared to Columbus taking a row boat to shore from La Santa Maria. For all the modern talk of colonization and oppression, this movie jumps out as taking a clear stance that if we want to achieve our pinnacle we have to be willing to take some hits.
The movie avoids any present day trappings, and is a sweet antidote to the saccharine Hidden Figures. This is history as it happened. The main players are all white, and the culture depicted is about as white-bread America as you can get. When the civil rights movement appears, with a black beat poet mouthing off about ‘whities on the moon’, it is juxtaposed against the majesty of the Apollo rocket (never has a piece of technology been so aptly named). There is an inspiring moment where Neil’s wife, Janet played by Claire Foy, forces Neil to talk to his two boys about where he is going and the fact that he might not come back. The scene ends when his older boy goes to bed, but instead of hugging his father, he shakes his hand, a nod of respect and representative of the duty to lineage. This movie has bigger issues to deal with than identity politics and the ‘silenced’ voices of history.
Driving these messages home is the language of the film itself. The camera work is absolutely spot-on and you’ve never seen space flight like this (though there is an homage to that well-know imagery of rockets ejecting their segments once they have served their purpose). We are constantly up close and personal, the camera almost always zoomed in on gauges and dials, or the harrowed faces of the astronauts. This makes the action scenes extremely claustrophobic and truly instills the feeling of what it must have been like to be jammed into a tight space and blasted into the void. We are rocked around as the capsules spin, and every judder and jolt has impact. Couple this with the sound and it’s no surprise I found myself gripping the seat. The music selection is inspired, haunting strings creating a lullaby to send you to the moon, ramping up to piercing strokes as the world falls away. This also might be one of the only films where the silence of space is played up so spectacularly well. Mark Fisher’s idea of the ‘eerie’ comes to mind when Armstrong and Aldrin open the hatch after landing and all you hear is the atmosphere being sucked out and then – silence. Perfect, complete silence. Is there anywhere more eerie than the moon? The moon provides Armstrong with a place outside what he knows, a place from which to gain a new perspective. He is not there for the bragging rights; he is there because he must be.
The movie ends here, at the literal peak of human achievement, and we begin to comprehend the accelerationist ideology on display. Right-wing accelerationism is firmly focused on reaching the stars, going beyond the horizon and reaching a Singularity. But in order to reach that capital must be restrained and guided, and it means facing the unknown. This is brilliantly showcased with a wonderful cold open. We are in a cockpit of a sonic jet being rocketed out of the atmosphere. As it leaves the earth we hear every ping of the hull and structure, every creak of every nut and bolt. It sounds monstrous, like a beast from beyond reality clawing at us. The camera is frenetic, invoking a sense of dread and making it difficult to get a sense of place. And then, suddenly, the jet breaks through and we are met by a gliding quietness. This theme is played on consistently, for example each time we see a space flight, the camera focuses on the shift from blue to black, the crossing of a horizon. On one of the test flights, Armstrong and another astronaut are relaxing when, with a jump scare straight from a slasher movie, the module suddenly goes into a spin. Technology is unpredictable, but if we can plug enough holes who knows where it will take us.
All in all the movie is Nietzschean in its appeal to the Übermensch. Yes, Armstrong was the first man on the moon, but first also implies Alpha. It implies boldness. It implies going beyond. Nietzsche talked of the Last Man, the person who is a result of the leveling and social homogenization that industrial society brings. What the film seems to be saying is that Armstrong was the last first man. While technology and civilization was misappropriated to promote a sit-back-and-relax attitude, First Man celebrates the last moment in Western history which we could be truly proud of. There are so many ideologies at work here, often shown with real footage. The writer Kurt Vonnegut is shown dismissing NASA, insisting that it is a waste of money (that a science fiction writer could not dream says much). Near the end a TV plays JFK’s famous ‘We choose to go to the Moon’ speech, and Armstrong looks on in disgust at the line ‘Because it is there’. That is not why one struggles. Armstrong knew this. He knew that if we are going to accelerate the process, it must be for a reason.