‘First Man’: A Hair-Raising Series of Crises

Is First Man, Damien Chazelle’s moody and moving biopic featuring Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong, anti-American for not having a flag in it?

Actually, this family drama features a lovely shot of Armstrong’s young son raising the American flag at his school while his father is on his first space mission.

Or is First Man a “right-wing fetish object,” as The New Yorker complains, because the moon landing was America’s most obviously awesome accomplishment of the pre–diversity über alles era? Richard Brody went on to whine that the movie is “whiter than a Fred-and-Ginger ballroom set,” with Chazelle racistly subscribing “to the misbegotten political premise that America used to be greater,” when, as everybody knows nowadays, he should instead have highlighted “Hidden Figures.”

We live in an era when to be an accomplished straight white man like Chazelle is increasingly seen as a political provocation undermining today’s most cherished belief—that the past was all just a giant conspiracy to make whitey look good. But in his brief but spectacular career, Chazelle has shown he simply doesn’t give a damn. First Man Buy New $5.99 (as of 03:55 EST - Details)

Chazelle directed Whiplash in 2014, a low-budget movie that won J.K. Simmons his long-awaited Oscar, and the retro musical La La Land in 2016, which was a Best Picture winner for about two chaotic minutes. Both are about ornery jazz musicians who don’t play by the rules, so it was surprising that Chazelle turned next to Armstrong’s authorized biography, the story of an engineer who absorbed training manuals for fun.

Armstrong was chosen to be the first man to set foot on the moon because of his large technical competence and his small ego (for an astronaut). During his long retirement he made sure to conduct himself with the gravity appropriate to his historic honor. Armstrong kept his politics quiet, but they were Jeffersonian-Lindberghian, opposing America being the world’s policeman and supporting state’s rights.

La La Land Buy New $6.99 (as of 03:55 EST - Details) Armstrong was the most famous of the Gemini generation of better-educated astronauts who succeeded the more colorful Mercury spacemen featured in the 1983 film The Right Stuff, to which First Man functions as a sort of sequel. Chuck Yeager, the zeroth generation test pilot made famous by Tom Wolfe’s book, felt that Armstrong was an engineer-pilot lacking in a natural feel for flying.

But in a hair-raising series of crises, Armstrong made the correct decisions that enabled him to walk away. He had three feet of wing knocked off during the Korean War but parachuted to safety, had his X-15 rocket plane bounce off the atmosphere while reentering from space, had a thruster control get stuck open on Gemini 8, barely ejected in time from the lunar lander while practicing outside Houston, and, in the ultimate predicament, coolly picked out an ideal landing spot on the Sea of Tranquility as his fuel ran low.

Still, Armstrong’s extreme reasonableness makes him a challenging figure to dramatize. So Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer focus on a lightly fictionalized account of his tightly wound reactions to his daughter’s death, emotions he was too dignified and private to publicize.

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