The Pointlessness of Heroism in First Man

Sound and fury signifying nothing

Source: IMDB

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about First Man since seeing it a month ago. I’m fascinated enough by spaceflight to have clocked 600 hours in Kerbal Space Program, but this is something else.

The movie is utterly compelling on several levels. Several reviewers have talked about the blankness of Gosling’s performance, the wall of inscrutability he throws up and the space this provides viewers to imprint on Armstrong. The movie seems to be anything its audience wants it to be, because Armstrong’s interior life is invisible to us, and all we have to grab onto is an anchoring web of pretty flexible signifiers — rockets, flags (or their absence), families, suburban houses.

Almost everything in the film is designed to make the (white, mostly male) viewer identify with Armstrong or his wife, Janet (Clare Foy). Mid-century domesticity is essential to this process. Most of the earthbound scenes are set in the same idyllic 1960s suburbs that are such a staple of the genre that even the found-footage schlocker Apollo 18 has a now-obligatory buzzcut barbeque. Both Gosling in First Man and Hanks in Apollo 13 spend time gazing at the moon frm their back gardens. Armstrong’s emotional trajectory is dominated by the second most easily conjured up grief in films after ‘parent with cancer’ — the death of a child. These are simple story beats used to hollow out space for the viewer to insert themselves, so the squealing rivets and “magnificent desolation” of the moon have more impact when they arrive.

But the danger can’t be held back from the bubble of the suburbs. There are raw absences created by fires and explosions, shell-shocked widows in driveways, and the Vietnam war on the television. Neil comes home covered in cuts and abrasions after a near miss in the LLRV. Neither can the great nationalistic mission crowd out the minutiae of life — as much as the heteronormativity of First Man grated, it was historically appropriate, and the recurrent presence of Karen Armstong is an important humanising impulse for a man so godlike that he had to sue his barber to stop him from stealing and selling his hair.

The thing about the film that has stayed with me more than any other aspect is the sound. So many reviewers have commented on the sound of squealing rivets, but I’d add the fluid cryogenic hiss of a rocket bell igniting, or the ragged abrasive rush of plasma forming around the capsule on ascent or re-entry. 2013’s Gravity also paid enormous attention to how sound could aid viewer immersion, with the muted sound of an electric drill or hands grasping handholds, as if transmitted by contact with a spacesuit, conjuring the lack of an atmosphere in low Earth orbit.

We’ve all been in a machine that rattles and squeaks, so hearing rivets squeal and pop isn’t too far from our everyday experience, even if we’ve never left the atmosphere. The point of this visceral sound, in combination with Gosling’s muted performance, is to give the viewer the feeling of ‘being there’. Armstrong is meant to be ‘just like us’ — he has a house, and kids, and a wife, and grief and feelings (even if we can’t see them) that are just like ours.

The music, too, is key to communicating the sublimation of Armstong’s grief about his daughter. There are three intertwined themes that are developed throughout the film: “Armstrong Cabin”/”Apollo 11 Launch,” “Houston”/”Quarantine”/”The Landing”,” and “Multi-Axis Trainer”/”First to Dock”. They are alternatively played as the lilting backdrop to saccharine scenes of family connection, or in a driving, meticulous, repetitive and mechanical mode to bring home the clockwork precision and insurmountable dangers of celestial mechanics in a vacuum. This is how the film aesthetically and emotionally connects thwarted fatherhood with the precarity of descending towards a rock with limited fuel and no other brakes.

I love the music from this film. I was so taken by it that I streamed one of the pieces — “The Landing” — through my phone via the car’s bluetooth system on the way home from the film. It’s bizarre to contemplate that the sort of connectivity and electronic power that enabled me to listen to a song in my car is light years ahead of the rudimentary computer in the Eagle, but the soundtrack is now part of both my writing and my walking soundtracks. I even managed to hack it into my copy of Kerbal Space Program.

I’m a man, so I’m genetically predisposed to having my blood stirred by brazen horns. Trumpets are the most martial and nationalist instrument, don’t you think? They tend to show up a lot in war films and space films; Justin Hurwitz’s score shares much with that of the blockbuster powerhouse Ron Howard/Tom Hanks collaboration from 1995, Apollo 13. Let’s consider the launch sequence from both films.

At first blush, Apollo 13’s launch is a celebration of nationalism and technical mastery, full of hope and power. The astronauts joke and smile and share feelings with the men who get them ready. As they ascend to the top of the rocket, the sun is shining. Jim Lovell shakes the hand of Gunther Wendt before the latter closes the hatch. By comparison, First Man’s is full of tension, foreboding, and trepidation. There is no banter, no smiles. Armstrong, Aldin and Collins ascend alone in the gloomy pre-dawn twilight.

But I want to talk about a very specific moment in Apollo 13. Towards the end of the clip, Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) struggles against g-forces to operate two switches — one that appears to cause the second stage to separate, and another that jettisons the Launch Escape System (pivotal because the ‘Abort’ button plays such a key role in the film’s buildup). In First Man, though the camera lingers on Gosling in closeup, we don’t see Armstrong operate any controls. Everything is automatic. It’s the music, not the visuals, that suggest the spacecraft has finally achieved a circular orbit (and thus is no longer in danger of falling back to Earth). This is mathematics rather than men.

It’s a really important shift to show Armstrong as a passenger rather than a pilot. Apollo astronauts are viewed as heroes, the pinnacle of individual human achievement, idolised the the point of near apotheosis. And yet here Armstrong is shown with nearly no agency whatsoever, at the beck and call of gravity, combustion, and a computer. Sure, this is undone later in the film when Armstrong overrules the error-prone computer to bring the Eagle down on the Moon, but all I could think during the launch was “well he’s not doing much, is he?”

American Astronauts — especially those 12 men who walked on the moon — fit entirely within the American frontier narrative as rugged, individualistic pioneers. Richard White argued in 1994 that the archetypal frontiersman was more Buffalo Bill’s musclar Army scout than Frederick Jackson Turner’s Americanised immigrant. Frontiersmen, like astronatus, are ‘pioneers’, self-reliant because they’re so far from ‘civilisation’. Frontiersman, like astronauts, are usually ex-military. In the documentary Last Man on the Moon, which details Gene Cernan’s experiences on Apollo 17, Cernan is introduced at a rodeo, wearing a hat reminscent of John Wayne. The ease with which Firefly, or, for that matter, Cowboys and Aliens, could blend westerns and sci-fi , and the tagline for Star Trek, which names space as ‘the final frontier’, speaks to this representational synergy between cowboys and spacemen.

This is why First Man is such an important addition to the stable of space movies, even if its racial and gender politics are bland and conservative: it represents a dramatic reframing of astronauts in our culture. Rather than muscular, maverick heroes, free-wheeling, wise-cracking daredevils, with just enough technical know-how and military chutzpah to get through (the ‘Right Stuff’ of legend), they’re lonely, isolated, nearly robotic men who will sacrifice almost everything that makes them human just to sit on top of a billion-dollar firecracker.

Those sacrifices take an emotional toll on those closest to them. The scene where Janet forces Neil to talk to his boys — and the painfully formal way he addresses them — capably demonstrates this. In Last Man on the Moon, Cernan talked about the single-mindedness of all the Apollo Astronauts, their inability to properly care for their families, and its role in his divorce. It was no surprise to me, given the strained portrayal of their marriage in the film, that in the real world, Janet and Neil divorced.

If First Man does nothing else, it punctures the myth of Apollo as a heroic, individualist adventure. Watching Armstrong sit motionless as the ground crew and computers manage his fight for him put me in mind of these words, written by Michael Collins, about the mission:

… The Saturn V rocket which put us in orbit is an incredibly complicated piece of machinery, every piece of which worked flawlessly … We have always had confidence that this equipment will work properly. All this is possible only through the blood, sweat, and tears of a number of people … All you see is the three of us, but beneath the surface are thousands and thousands of others, and to all of those, I would like to say, “Thank you very much.”

There is definitely room in our culture right now to remember collective endeavour in preference to individual achievement, to recognise the work of the many behind the success of the few. And also, perhaps, to ask just how much energy and skill it really requires of the most prominent and visible among us to be propelled by the effort of others.

First Man might not be a film about collective endeavour, but it is a film that calls ambition and sacrifice into question. The film leaves so much space to question the purpose of crewed spaceflight, despite the technical mastery required to achieve it. Because Armstrong’s motives are so unclear, it’s easy to start wondering why any of them would even bother. When Armstrong and Aldrin finally arrive on the moon, it’s pretty clear there’s nothing to do there. They walk about 20 meters, pick up some dirt, plant a flag, and then they’re done. If I were playing Kerbal Space Program rather than watching a movie, after gathering that dirt and planting that flag, I’d hit the fast-forward button at this point to eat up the time until launch, becuse there’s nothing to do on the moon. The challenge is all in getting there. The film doesn’t even bother to show the return journey, because in celestial terms, it’s just more of the same. I was left with the sense that an actual robot could have done the job better and cheaper. All that buildup, and for what? And that, to me is what makes the film so great.