Review: Study in Grief at the Loss of a Child – First Man by Damien Chazelle

People who criticized this film entirely missed the point. It wasn’t supposed to be some rah rah film about Yankee Ingenuity. We get it. It was an American effort helped by German Rocket 🚀 Scientists 👨‍🔬 via Operation Paperclip 📎 while we were competing against the Soviet Union, with their purloined German rocket 🚀 scientists.

They had their heroes; Yuri Gagarin, Valentina Tereshkova. We kind of loved them too.

We mourned Apollo I, we watched Apollo 8 , 9, and 10 and we wondered if we could be astronauts or engineers at Houston. Then one early morning of July 20th, 1969 the world heard ‘The Eagle had Landed’.

There have been several good movies and series about the Space Program. ‘The Right Stuff’, Apollo 13, ‘From the Earth to the Moon’. They focus on a few different characters. ‘First Man focuses on one, Neil Armstrong. To Americans he was a symbol, a man we never really knew. A quiet man. A hero. He had no flaws like Lindbergh. Classy in all things. America respected him by respecting his privacy. He earned that. Chazelle brings him to life for the first time ever.

space universe moon research
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Oh, Botendaddy is not patriotic? I guess being fifth generation US Army with my own service  in Bosnia 🇧🇦 with the US Army’s 35th ID and then in Iraq 🇮🇶 with the US 1st Cavalry Division doesn’t adequately qualify me as an American who has an opinion on patriotism?

space research science astronaut
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

If you aren’t an American, then this little internecine conflict seems rather silly, so no worries.

First Man is about a very controlled man, an engineer whose life is detail and structure dealing with very tough emotions. In the final analysis he’s the man you send to the White House to talk to angry Senators. He’s the man you put in front of the press. He’s the man who carries the flag. But the only thing he carries that matters to him is a tiny bracelet.

The loss of a child before your very eyes, especially in slow motion as doctors and modern medicine fail, is a horrific tortuous experience. It is literally physically painful as your stomach muscles grind into tearing knots and you can do nothing for your only child and you watch your wife’s agony. You never get over it. It lingers over you like Poe’s Raven and you live every day in fear for your current or maybe future children.

This movie brought all of that back.

We see Neil Armstrong, the engineer, the fighter pilot try to control things he can’t control in his own life while he can control supersonic jet fighters and test planes in near space. He desperately calls doctors seeking a miracle cure. But cruelly, none of his skill and analysis and calculation can save his own child. He puts his notes and charts and diagrams into a drawer after he loses her to cancer.

All of his joy in his accomplishments are tempered by this overwhelming loss, it is only on the very moon itself that he can achieve some catharsis and connect with his lost child.

Ryan Gosling is brilliant. He plays an emotionally repressed character to tremendous depths similar to his role in ‘Lars and the Real Girl’. He is a man trapped in a world where there is a right and wrong thing to say. His actions are the only release for his tightly wound emotions. His words only come through when he shuts down the loud-mouthed eccentric Buzz Aldrin, played by Corey Stoll, after Aldrin blames the test pilots for their own deaths.

Aldrin was crazy, but also a campy hero who was a little like the common guy and we love him anyway in spite of his flaws.

Ed White, played by Jason Clarke as Armstrong’s best friend, has difficulty reaching through the shell of silence that is the only way Neil can cope until his brain has processed each trauma.

Claire Foy is very strong as the also very controlled yet adult-in-the-room as the very deliberate and level Janet Armstrong. She is the mother of the clan and she accepts the role because a mid-western simple American girl must, it’s not a choice. She provides comfort and guidance to a broken Patricia White  played by Olivia Hamilton. But Janet’s loss is profound as well. Her eyes belie the pain of never being able to take her little girl to buy shoes, never seeing her off to prom or seeing her get married. She lost the only image of herself.

This lack of glory and man as uncertain archetype is also displayed in the technology. The risks are high: fatal test flight crashes, Gemini malfunction and uncontrolled roll, fire, terror and death on Apollo I. All the pain of unproven experimental engineering is unapologetically laid bare.

Chazelle depicts space flight as a dark, terrifying claustrophobic, violent, kaleidoscopic experience where only God, some unknown person’s engineering and your own skill can save you. This is in contrast to the slow sanitized versions we’ve seen in similar films.

The minimalist musical score by Justin Hurwitz helps the movie create mood by avoiding saccharine or overbearing tones and allowing the events to speak for themselves.

The inclusion of the political landscape was important, as the world had changed from the start of the space program when the whole country was united behind the space race as a matter of national honor and competition for then world’s attention vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. Riots, Vietnam, Urban poverty was the landscape of 1968. The vignette of Gil Scot Heron, (best known for ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’) doing a rendition of the haunting ‘Whitey on the Moon’ was a brilliant stroke. This only adds to the minimalist third party keyhole view that Chazelle gives us.

When Armstrong returns from space and is in quarantine, he and his wife, separated by glass are just the same two people they always were, yet under an unblinking spotlight on the greatest achievement of mankind, but their glory is nonetheless flattened by an unspeakable loss. They don’t share a moment of triumph as they contemplate each other in obvious pain, rather they are just two people who survived and yet are forced to carry on for the sake of their boys and duty to country.

It is an absolute tragedy that people missed this film because of the current shameful political dichotomy. If you get a chance, you should see this movie. If you’ve ever lost a child, you will truly understand it. If you’ve lost a child, you should watch it alone.

It’s a shame that people were steered away from this movie because the flag wasn’t big and colorful enough. In my world, real patriots don’t have to wave the flag. They live it.

Peace be the Botendaddy

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