RIORI Presents Installment #189: Damian Chazelle’s “First Man” (2018)



The Players…

Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, with Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Shea Wigham, Corey Stoll and Lukas Haas.


The Basics…

This film fictionalizes the account about how Neil Armstrong overcame the trials and tribulations of being the first astronaut—the first human—to ever set foot on the Moon.

That’s it. Short and sweet. You’re welcome.


The Rant…

I’ve noticed this resurgence of Flat Earth societies on social media, which is where I go for “the truth” if you dig. These yo-yos proffering some pseudo-science to disprove facts the ancient Greeks figured out long before any Karen had it out with any exasperated manager. I’ve since learned that the ancient Babylonians realized the Earth is round based on simple astronomy (EG: how the sun and moon move across the sky). This conspiracy theory has bubbled up again en masse within the past four years, coincidently enough. It’s rough to be a YouTube subscriber and not see all these posts regarding science versus erroneous empirical evidence. I’ve watched a view channels, and those trying to disprove our amazing planet is nothing more than a D&D-esque platform for humanity to play upon. Never mind the other planets are round, or the moon of the sun even. Nope. God’s just been f*cking with our sense of time and motion for thousands of years. Sure. You ever heard of Occam’s Razor?

Huh? What’s that? You haven’t? Did never catch a screening of Zemekis’ Contact? That movie was based on a novel by uber-astronomer Carl Sagan, who is still held in high esteem in some circles. His book was a feasible, scientifically minded s/f story about how aliens may want to communicate with us. Long story short the movie posited two scenarios. Either astronaut Jodie Foster actually contacted some extra-terrestrial signal or the whole mission was just one big, expensive, international hoax for yuk-yuks. Occam’s Razor says that the simplest answer tends to be the correct one. Either Jodie heard something or John Hurt spent an obscene amount of cash to make Earth’s population look like a bunch of rubes with he mother of all practical jokes. Made you look! Regarding the Flat Earth theory either the firmly established laws of time, space, gravity, general relativity are wrong or Kyle with his Twitter feed and has streamed way too many classic eps of The Outer Limits is correct ignoring basic psychics your average junior in high school understands. Noodle that.

I have a point coming up regarding Flat Earth myopia, and it’s a simple, Occam kind of inquiry. Say these yahoos are correct and we’ve been living on a God’s snooker table for millennia. My response to that theory is thus:

“So?”

These would-be kindergarten Keplers are so very insistent, if not in a frothing frenzy to prove that our planet is planar one must ask: So what? What’s your point? What do you get out of that?

*crickets*

Humans are an advantageous species. We look for ways to overcome obstacles in the most expedient fashion. Hell, take the COVID vaccines. I’m not some shill for Merck, but I’m pretty sure vaccines take some time to be developed. My mother told me about the polio epidemic in the 50s and how quick Salk made his vaccine available, despite some resistance. Kinda like now (BTW, we presently have not one but two viable vaccines for corona developed within a year, yet Africa has been dying of AIDS going on 40 years. Hmm). We want quick solutions to problems, and like Occam, we want the simplest, most efficient solution.

Solving the COVID crisis is not even in the same league as the Flat Earth theory, but it’s akin to it based on scientific, empirical truth upset the whole “So what?” argument. We know the outcome of effective vaccines (EG: less death, fewer masks and an unencumbered opportunity to go to a movie theatre again). We know the benefit. So what’s the benefit of a flat planet? What does this swift, direct and totally fallacy do to help the true believers? Haven’t seen that on YouTube yet, but I’m willing to wager a small sum that such videos exist. I’d like to meet those folks and sell them this historic bridge in Brooklyn for a dollar. A Canadian dollar. Don’t get nervous.

The best evidence I know of to firmly debunk this silly, unscientific, shut-the-hell-up-already Flat Earth theory can be laid at the feet of—no big surprise—NASA.

Let’s set the way-back machine to July of 1969. The intrepid crew of Apollo XI set down on the moon, the first time in history humanity was off-world. While astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were doing geological surveys and taking selfies, command module pilot Michale Collins was in lunar orbit, waiting for his buddies to finish up their day at the dirty beach. History was made and our daring spacefarers made it back to Mother Earth intact, with no small help from the seasoned pilot Collins.

I feel that Collins got the short shrift in NASA history. No, he didn’t make and giant leap for whomever. He was a space valet driver if you think about it, but he was the most seasoned pilot in NASA, cutting his conning teeth back in the Gemini program where young astros were learning the physics of outer space HALO.

One of the highlights of Collins’ career as an astronaut was essentially writing the rulebook for space docking procedures. Hey, all those capsules and satellites and excursion modules had no computer guidance, and they had to fit together somehow. Early NASA flights were seldom self-contained like the ISS is today. Lotta Lego action back in the Gemini program. That’s where Collins had made his bones.

Back in 1966, Collins and company were practicing docking maneuvers during the Gemini X program. The goal was to dock a space capsule with an “Agena Target Docking Vehicle.” Essentially a satellite to—you guessed it—practice docking maneuvers. At the rendezvous point, Collins took this photograph as he approached the Agena (photo courtesy of NASA):

Slow down there. What’s that I spy with my little eye in the background? Looks like Earth, curvature and all. This snap was taken in 1966, before Neil and friends made it to the moon. This was high orbit. I see clouds and the ocean and a hurricane forming and perhaps Argentina and a distinct curved horizon. Pool tables aren’t curvy.

Which leads us to the other conspiracy theory, the bastard stepchild of the Flat Earth myth: NASA faked the moon landings. Now here come the other witless True Believers. Those who claimed the moon landing was a total sham. Again, why? What favor does it give you dingdongs? Stanley Kubrick made up that mock set so LBJ could thumb his nose at the Soviet Federal Space Agency? I view this mentality akin to pranking a stranger with a dozen delivered pizzas. Sure, it could’ve been made a hoax with a big deal Hollywood budget and an isolated soundstage at Area 51. A lot of these would be skeptics claim that the actual film director Kubrick was commissioned to stage the hoax with his expert eye and nifty special effects created by wiz-kid Douglas Trumbull that made their s/f epic 2001: A Space Odyssey such a visual tour de force. Of course it could be done! And it was!

To what end I ask?

Yes, the visuals in 2001 are striking—even 50 odd years later—at least from the tech angle. However all those heavenly bodies in the film, from the moon landing to our intrepid astronauts jetting out to Jupiter are against obvious matte paintings. Very good matte paintings mind you—for the time—but the original story told that Bowman, Poole and HAL were heading off to Saturn to search for intelligent life, not Jupiter. Why the switch? F/X wizard Trumbull nixed the Saturn voyage because he couldn’t create an accurate looking Saturn. This was reflected by how Jupiter in the final cut looked like a cotton candy Chupa-Chup. A very good cotton candy Chupa-Chup, but still just a matte painting.

Wait. To compare here’s a photo from an Earth-based observatory of Jupiter courtesy of NASA back in 1967 (read the log entry), a year before 2001 debuted:


Now here’s a shot of “Jupiter” from 2001, released in 1968:

So let’s get this straight: Kubrick faked the moon landings, despite the film tech at the time was slightly less sophisticated than NASA’s bag of tricks. 2001 dropped a year before the Eagle landed, yet Trumbull was unable to make Saturn look like Saturn, but create Jupiter as a photograph of a photograph of Jupiter. You doubters can go along with debating the film’s feasibility (like a a bow and arrow could  overpower an AK-47 in the wrong hands), but you’ll argue against two dead master filmmakers who admitted their limitations making the ultimate, scientifically accurate s/f movie they couldn’t reproduce with a NASA-sized budget, leaving Lyndon kicking a foot against his Fresca machine.

That’s the trouble with conspiracy theories: they technically can’t be disproven. With every shred of doubt comes a sliver of evidence to the contrary that only invites another theory refuting the evidence. It’s all paradox. It’s all Schrödinger’s Cat. These fallacies just encourage the theorists that they are right, the Universe is wrong and in the end it leads to nothing. Nothing save some self-righteous dolt with a YouTube channel established firmly to be an anthropological buzzkill. So what if the Earth is flat? So what if the moon landing was faked? To what end?

Mostly justifying insecurity, paranoia, the warm fuzzy you have knowing “the truth,” as well it is as bad as you think and, yes, They are out to get you. Now, here’s your sandwich board, scrawl THE END IS NIGH on it, take this bell and go stand on that street corner. Some like-minded nabob may strike up a conversation.

Sigh.

Regrouping, chances are you not familiar with Michael Collins and his story. But you all know who Neil Armstrong was. His story was about being the first man on the moon. He brought back this postcard for all Mankind:



The Story…

Hello? Did you not read The Basics above? Short and sweet?


The Breakdown…

Before we commence with the usual folderol I’d like to share a whimsical story about Neil Armstrong. Not about the man, per se, but the idea of the man and what he inspires.

In college I played sax in the marching band. My then girlfriend played baritone horn. The thing looked like an oversized bugle, but with valves, and bell angled at the audience and you had to carry it like a sack of groceries. They gave off a pleasant, sonorous sound in harmony with the tubas. Every year at band camp, to break the ice and generate morale for the freshmen, the upperclassmen would design a tee shirt to wear during practice. My girl once laid some trivia on me that back in his schooldays Neil Armstrong played in marching band, and played the baritone horn! Upon dropping this science she asked me for my opinion (for some weird reason. I played sax. I already had my John Coltrane’s Crescent album art emblazoned on my tee) as to how maybe incorporate this Armstrong story into a baritone tee. My answer was simple: you ever see online one of those huge, round screens Pink Floyd used to use in their live shows? Superimpose the moon on one with a caption that read, “SUMB Baritones. Still first in space.”

It didn’t happen, but it would’ve been neat. I’d’ve bought one.

Anyway, most folks in modern history lionize Neil Armstrong as the “greatest astronaut ever.” He wasn’t. No one astronaut in the Apollo flight plan were. Those guys were all aces, quick on their feet, able to multitask, savvy in engineering and able to deliver the goods when the “real science” needed churning out down on Earth. Armstrong was a solid engineer and a crack pilot. These days, you want a sortie on the ISS you better carry multiple diplomas earned from universities in New England and/or California. Or even the UK. These days the scientists surf on sine waves more than they can tolerate altitude sickness and subsist on Gerber’s for a few days. These days its all tech and numbers. Back then it was a gamble with gravity. No, Armstrong wasn’t the greatest astronaut, but come Apollo XI, he was the most qualified to command the mission, and he got the job done. The proof is on Betamax somewhere, I think.

Ahem.

*raps pointer on chalkboard*

For our fourth of seven movies in a series that revolve around historical fiction/biopics this week we have First Man. Since I’m an amateur astronomer and have always been nuts about space travel I couldn’t wait to see the film. I’d naturally been drawn to the story (doy) about how Neil Armstrong became…well, Neil Armstrong. First man on the Moon. Awesome! Shots of early NASA history! Behind the scenes of Neil’s homelife against his job…his mission! Why wasn’t this film made sooner?

There are reasons.

First was one of those long gestating projects in ol’ Hollyweird. Not quite in Development Hell, but pretty close. A lot of gears had to turn for the film to grind into being, and timing—as they claim—is everything. So much so that a bit of serendipity was at play back around, oh, 20 plus years ago.

Acclaimed actor/director Clint Eastwood had just wrapped up his NASA dramedy Space Cowboys. Fun flick BTW, a lilted take on the Mercury program meets Geritol. In 2003 author James R Hansen released the official bio of Neil Armstrong titled First Man: The Life Of Neil Armstrong. Clint opted the book for the film rights in 2005. As things went, Eastwood dropped the project (as well as starring in the movie) and First went adrift for awhile. Until Universal and DreamWorks took up the baton, and then assembling a crew to make First happen that was ragtag but proved fruitful. A lot of movies under production work this way, often with success. The original Lion King happened in a ramshackle fashion. It took decades for Forrest Gump spring from page to screen. Even One Flew Over The Cuckoos’ Nest was optioned by Kirk Douglas (who wished to star as McMurphy) only to have son Michael Douglas merely finance it. Sh*t happens, then it fertilizes.

First became a reality piecemeal. Director Chazelle got a lot of applause for his La La Land and rewarded with the Best Director Oscar back in 2016. With that clout La La star Gosling came along for the ride, even though Emma Stone—whom I would enjoy touching—got the Best Actress ho-ha (and IMHO would’ve made a pretty good Janet Armstrong with First). It’s odd how a story like Armstrong’s took so long to tell, at least on the big screen. Not to mention how First technically didn’t stall at the Seventh Level. It’s kinda a nod to how Armstrong gradually rose in the ranks from test pilot to Gemini to Apollo to the moon. Good stuff takes time, and patience is rewarded. All that and it doesn’t hurt that Dirty Harry made the first move, punk.

Chazelle knows how to rope you in. Man‘s cold open sure got my attention, you better believe it. He showed that in NASA the stakes are always high. Over the moon, so to speak (let me have that one, okay?). We’re focusing on the early space program and the people behind it. In our minds we know that those first daring men risked life and limb in the name of exploration, science and informing Khrushchev to get bent. In the film however, everything, everything is dire. There’s a scene where Janet Armstrong explains that she’s used to funerals. That pretty much sums First up. Risk, risk and more risk. From Armstrong’s daughter Karen to death spirals to onboard fires after watching this I could only marvel at how young NASA managed to succeed more than fail back during the Space Race. This was frontier territory. The risks were indeed great, but also relentless. I could mention great tension, but I’d rather say I wasn’t going to the bathroom for two-and-a-half hours watching First. And I know how to tap a pause button.

Which you may have to do watching Man. There are a lot of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it details, allusions, foreshadowing, Easter eggs and a lot of other nice touches that one could have learned in basic 7th grade language arts. The cold open is good place as any to set the tone for the movie, despite it being a tad misleading as well as winking, but in a polite way. As the NASA works out the kinks for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, the camera focus gradually gets less grainy. The use of a Steadicam in the first act made for great visual tension, if not visceral terms. I prayed both were cut back for the second. And they were. As this little technique clears up, we realize we have two plots diverge but never really break. We had Neil’s mission and Janet at home with the kids. Frontline against homefront. The camera work there is at “home” things are jagged, like watching an old ep of NYPD Blue. When Neil’s “at work” everything is much smoother Even as we may know a chunk of NASA’s historical record, sure space exploration a “purely scientific endeavor” (quotes mine), but there was always an undercurrent of competition with the Soviets. More like a pissing contest. I doubt that the astronauts and their wives attending yet another funeral were ignorant of those in the cat’s bird seat in DC not paying for the services.

Noise seemed to be a prominent force here, or the absence of it. We all know that there is no sound in the vacuum of outer space (or now you do), and director Chazelle using this nugget of astronomy to create a character from it. No shocker when Armstrong and Aldrin touched down and ventured out of the Eagle there would be jarring silence. However, silence was the enemy for several scenes in the movie. Silence. The not knowing. Every time something went adrift in the film was like immediate foreshadowing well into crisis. Deafening silence. Without such a distraction you had to believe your eyes as to what the hell was going on. Sensory deprivation was a very clever way to hook the audience in. We were dealing with extremes through all those early NASA days. Everything was dire. Every bolt secured, a coffin. Why not make the movie audience chew on their finger and toenails to get hooked on Neil and company’s exploits in scientific uncertainty?

That being said, fear is another potent draw in First. Gosling as Armstrong, no matter how qualified for the job is a walking contradiction. Seasoned pilot and later seasoned astronaut. Loving family who is always waiting for the space boots to drop. Duty to God and Country despite both failed his REDACTED. Many scenes in First had this air of, “Please, not again.” It’s not surprising that danger lurked around every corner of the Space Race, but I felt another funeral was always looming. An undercurrent. Sure, space exploration was paramount, but what about the folks Earthside that weren’t risking their lives but lived through potential loss vicariously thanks to the proud NASA goals? In a word: Who? The “who” is what created the finest tension in the film. The off-world exploits were damned fine, but what about the people the astronauts should come home to? In one piece if any? Remember, none of this is real, yet all of this is real. Perhaps in some obtuse way, but you are damn observant when you sprout gooseflesh as I did watching First. Many times.

I was totally mesmerized come act three. I had held Neil’s hand for over two hours. I felt every minor victory and every pronounced shiver. As Chazelle was a skilled director, throughout all that tumult—all those minor ups and major downs—if there were any solid truth in it, I got why Armstrong had to get to the Moon. Not for science, quite not for NASA and surely not for taking a whiz on the Soviets. For closure.

What’s out there? Something lost? Someone? REDACTED?

First is both a harrowing and joyous film. Shakespearean in execution and Steinbeck in structure. First is a many-headed hydra. It makes you uncomfortable, then engaged, then uncomfortable being engaged until elation comes without warning. Thank the even comedy and tragedy and appreciative understanding that Armstrong had made it to the moon well before this biopic hit theaters.  The film requires an easy concentration. There is a lot to digest, but it goes down easy with Chazelle confidently at the helm. He’s very clever with First. It’s tricky to balance art with commerce with La-La Land, but on the whole he succeed. if only in a modest way.

It’s too bad First ended up here at RIORI. It truly is.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? By all means rent it. First is—in two word words—a success. Short and sweet.


The Musings…

  • “It’ll be an adventure.”
  • Gosling’s haircut is ridiculous and absolutely perfect. It was an era of discovery and very bad haircuts.
  • “Jiminy?” Well, when you wish upon a star and all that.
  • I enjoyed Gosling’s vocal affect.
  • “Now look at all the crayons!”
  • Oh God, Karen’s bed.
  • “I married Neil because I wanted a normal life.”
  • The Gemini VIII scene was worth the admission price alone.
  • “If I had a choice I’d take more fuel.”
  • Why were foot pedals for freezers abandoned? Kinda like tap toe hi-beams?
  • “I’m done.”
  • Here’s some cool trivia: The glass that NASA used for their craft’s windows? Pyrex. No cool super-polymers back then. Found that clever.
  • And yes, I’ve seen Silent Running. Trumbull’s Saturn then was no less convincing.
  • “You’re Dad’s going to the Moon.”

The Next Time…

Get up! Get On Up! Get up! Get On Up! Stay on the scene! Get On Up! Like a sex machine! Get On Up!


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