The lunar surface struck Buzz Aldrin as “magnificent desolation”. While the phrase never appears in First Man, Neil Armstrong (played by the fittingly inexpressive Ryan Gosling) emits the same quality. He refuses invitations to emote or enthuse. A man asks him about his dead daughter and gets next to nothing as an answer. He caps his pre-flight speech to his sons by asking, like the chair of a flagging panel event, if there are any questions.
First Man is a subversive film. This is not because of its alleged de-Americanisation of the Moon landing. Old Glory appears in plain (if fleeting) sight. No one leaves the cinema in doubt that these are American men atop an American rocket near the middle of an American century. Its daring lies, rather, in the heroisation of a taciturn and emotionally unavailable person. These qualities are now more often pathologised.
Call it the lure of the modern (the director, Damien Chazelle, is 33) but the film repeats that error in parts. With spectacular presumption, it attributes Armstrong’s reticence to his bereavement, as though he’d been out-bantering Rodney Dangerfield until his daughter contracted cancer. Not all quiet people are concealing great, sad depths. Some are just — as we used to say, when we were not yet all clinical psychologists — the type.
For the most part, however, the film shows Armstrong, in all his remoteness, as better-adjusted than the giddy journalists, the grandiloquent politicians and the colleagues who bear a fraction of his burdens. Covering the Moon mission, Norman Mailer felt unsure if it was “the noblest expression of the Twentieth Century or the quintessential statement of our fundamental insanity”. Armstrong gives every impression of siding with the second view, but doing his job regardless.
First Man establishes the theme of reticence before it even gets going. There is the title’s coded tribute to an old (supposedly lapsed) type of maleness. There is the casting of Gosling, the George Harrison of Hollywood, a private man forever rolling his hooded eyes at the vulgarity of other people’s interest in him.
James Joyce defined sentimentality as “unearned emotion”. There is lots of that about. Most of it is harmless. But it becomes insidious when people conflate discretion with “repression”, as though anyone who does not air their feelings is storing up an eventual crisis. If this were true, it is not just Britain that is doomed, it is that sliver of America between Manhattan and Los Angeles. Armstrong was from the Midwest, where, to me, people seem as laconic about their interior lives as in any of England’s Home Counties. It is not just Armstrong who would answer, when asked what he would like to take to the Moon, “more fuel”.
Even more of-the-times than unearned emotion is what could be called unearned wisdom. By this I mean the increasingly inescapable advice from near-strangers of no great eminence to “stay humble”, “follow your inspiration” and “practise gratitude every day”. The last century’s Vasco da Gama managed to “gee” and “neat” his way to the Moon.
First Man is a good, not great film. It does for astronauts what The Ipcress File did for spies — debunk the glamour, extol the quotidian — but it does it too well to captivate. There is some pointless Dogme 95 camerawork to leave you nauseous. It also makes such a blowhard of Aldrin that I suspect that a film called Second Man, redressing the balance, would be twice as interesting.
What the film does do is honour a personality type more often seen as a curiosity in need of saving from itself. And it might have paid for it. First Man’s mildly lacklustre takings have been blamed on the fuss about its politics. I suspect it has as much to do with its unfashionable coldness. Bar a mawkish scene or two, it refuses to dunk a practical man performing a technical feat in the cloying syrup of Instagram emotion.
Even the moment that Armstrong and his wife share at the end is low-key and wordless. As you await the Hollywood gesture, the sop to unearned feeling, the screen goes as black as space.
If you are a subscriber and would like to receive alerts when Janan’s articles are published, just click the button “add to myFT”, which appears at the top of this page beside the author’s name. Not a subscriber? Follow Janan on Twitter @JananGanesh or email him at email@example.com
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published