Our Sights to the Stars

Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic, First Man, is a thrilling paean to determination and discovery.

Neil Armstrong standing with the X-15 ship after a 1960 research flight. NASA / Wikimedia.

It’s the machines of clunky metal. Clunky metal husks. And the yellowed lined ledger paper. Humanity went to the moon on this. Armstrong had to jot down calculations with a pen on chart paper while in orbit in Gemini 8, his first trip to space. It all looks so antiquated now, which director Damien Chazelle takes care to show us.

“We only started flying sixty years ago,” justifies Neil Armstrong to a congressman who queries NASA spending and delays. What do you expect? Great leaps demand great investment. By the time Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface, it had still only been sixty-six years since the Wright Brothers first flew.

It bears remembering that for all the high-tech of space flight, these voyages were dangerous longshots. Rickety ships crossing great expanses with no certainty of destination, much less return. The longer we go without returning to the moon, the more credible those fake moon landing theories also seem.

“You have nothing under control,” charges Armstrong’s wife at one of the ground mission control men, as the Gemini 8 mission takes a dangerous turn. “You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood!” This is, metaphorically, true. “These are sailors of the sky,” a radio announcer muses in the background as Apollo 11 takes off.

Next summer marks fifty years since that conquest. Yet for all the crude technology, those times could look at today and find us, with justification, to be the backward ones.

First Man is an indubitably Chazelle film. Beautiful bursts of light and jolts of the camera are the director’s means of capturing movement, to the point of nausea. It is present in the whirlwind of a big band performance or in the charm of a “city of stars” montage, as in his past two films, Whiplash and La La Land. Here, the crashing of drums is replaced by the bangs of rocket thrusts. They are louder than war. That these thrusts are in the service of something deeply human, rather than anti-human, makes them no less scary.

The film is also, once again, about steely determination in pursuit of noble goals and the sacrifices these demand. Jazz and perseverance are Chazelle’s preoccupations; here, for a change, the subject matter is less Louis and more Neil.

The film covers the length of the decade, following Armstrong from his time as an Air Force test pilot through to his return from the moon. The gaze is firmly on the man and — in decreasing order of prominence — his family, fellow astronauts, the NASA bureaucracy and the institutional and political context. Armstrong is taciturn and carries with him the death of his two-year-old daughter.

An approving portrayal of the strong-and-silent type was always likely to provoke snide responses in our age. One review reckons Ryan Gosling’s Armstrong was “more interested in knobs and dials than human emotion”; another feels he is “not so much strong and silent as glazed-over.” These might be more theatrical than social critiques, and might also be correct. The reader can make up their own jokes here about Gosling’s inexpressiveness.

More serious an accusation came courtesy of Richard Brody in the New Yorker, who seizes on what he sees as the film’s endorsement of psychological repression, social aloofness, and chauvinism. Almost as if this film — about something that happened in the 1960s — has committed the crime of being against the spirit of the sixties. The tunnel-vision portrayal of the race to the moon is an intolerable scope for Brody.

The absence of flag-planting nationalism perturbed noted TV-watcher and president, Donald Trump: “It’s almost like they’re embarrassed at the achievement coming from America.” Brody, despite this, feels that there is still a deep Americanism to the movie. Upon mission complete, we are shown footage of enthusiastic crowds across the globe; a French woman commends the US: “I knew they wouldn’t fail!” Though the team are eager to give it to the Soviets, Armstrong’s mission feels more personal. If this is chauvinism, we are setting a pretty low bar.

The critique instead argues that what we have is a “right-wing fetish object … Nothing in the film suggests that Neil is even aware of what’s going on in the world around him.” Indeed, “there’s no sense of what Neil’s perspective might be on the Twist, the Beatles, or anything else going on in the turbulent sixties.” And grateful the cinema-goer should be. As if the world needs another cinematic montage of the sixties counterculture.

The domestic scenes are, if we are to use decade-based clichés, rather “1950s.” Brody is irked by the kitsch, by this world seemingly untouched by pop culture (see Armstrong’s household décor and music tastes). But this is actual period detail; it communicates the foreignness of the time. Fifty years. The New Yorker reviewer seems to think a film about the 1960s should feel more like today.

The more serious objection relates to the treatment of archival clips showing social protest, including Kurt Vonnegut arguing there are better ways to spend the space program money. Here, Chazelle “openly mocks people who thought that the moon money was spent foolishly.” This is the default left-wing critique of space exploration: we’ve got enough problems down on Earth. But is there really an opposition between welfare and exploration? Between living a decent present and shooting for a glorious future? Does this not buy into the contemporary capitalist blackmail that the masses have to choose – that some things are just too good for the working class? This penny-pinching critique might, on the contrary, be part of the problem. This is why we can’t have nice things.

Further, Brody’s argument suggests that the cinematic depiction of Armstrong’s steadfast resolution ignores class struggle. But is it not obvious that the engine driving the United States to the moon was competition with the Soviet Union? That the “threat” of Communism disciplined the capitalist ruling class? The advances in technology and living standards achieved by the US, before the neoliberal counter-revolution, were precisely products of class struggle at home, too: high wages and the pressure they put on capital to develop labor-saving technology.

So maybe those 1960s protesters were wrong, by setting this up as a trade-off. After all, nowadays we have less class struggle, less welfare and no ambitious space program. Perhaps the counter-cultural attempt to deconstruct ambition and stoicism is, in fact, complicit with our days’ limited horizons.

It is this stoicism that comes in for the biggest bashing from Brody. The film is “defined not by conservative politics but, rather, by a narrow and regressive emotional perspective that shapes and distorts the substance of the film.” See Armstrong’s unwillingness publicly to emote over his departed daughter. But the film’s emotional climax sees Armstrong depositing his dead daughter’s bracelet on the surface of the moon while we flash back, through the astronaut’s eyes, to those bittersweet memories of life before. It is catharsis. It is beautiful. This is what all that doggedness was for: this release. You’d have to be an emotional eunuch not to be touched.

For Brody, this Armstrong is but a “cardboard cutout, a living poster man of bygone American heroism.” The drive Chazelle depicts is not just about the conquest of outer space, but the mastery of inner space. It is about self-discipline in the pursuit of greatness. What is particularly right-wing about this?

Maybe it is forgotten that Marxism is a doctrine of (collective) self-discipline. It’s not about let-it-all-hang-out hippyness, nor of anarchoid anger, an unleashing of the ego. It’s about determination to create a world in which we are not throttled and thrown about by impersonal forces. We can go beyond the sterile, artless, philistine domination by the market and its narrow calculation. This is what Marx called inner necessity.

As many have noted, it is telling that US capitalism’s drive to explore came to an end once the Soviet Union collapsed. These were two ostensibly revolutionary powers, but in fact, the New World republic had long left revolution behind. Only one of the two powers still had thrust of its own, which had the positive effect of pulling the other along. Now, that’s all over. At best, there is privatized version of the space race. If imperial competition was a terrible alibi for human exploration, private competition is even more tawdry, and timid.

First Man shows Armstrong annoyed by Congress’s impatience for a quick return on its investment at a White House shindig. Minutes later, he learns of the deaths of three fellow astronauts in a capsule fire. Armstrong’s bloody-mindedness is later questioned: you want to reach the moon, “but at what cost”? For Armstrong, the sacrifices made, in very human terms, make reaching the moon all the more essential. It is a duty. This is not psychologically problematic, nor “inhumanly heroic,” as Brody has it. It is heroically human.

Perspective is important. It can make things seem big. It can make things seem small. Perspective is important for Chazelle. Perspective can relativize things that should be absolute. The driven drummer of Whiplash rejects “mature” acquiescence to mediocrity. Told by his father that, “when you get to my age, you get some perspective,” the drummer replies, spitefully, “I don’t want perspective.”

Armstrong explains why space travel matters, in his NASA entrance interview, as something more than just discover for its own sake: “when you get a different vantage point, you get a different perspective.” Maybe this is that old cliché about the smallness of Earth. But maybe it is about the incomprehensible grandeur of extra-planetary exploration. Perspective.

There is no tradeoff between a good society at home and discovery abroad, between building a world in which no Einstein lives and dies in cotton fields and sweatshops (to paraphrase Stephen Jay Gould ) and a continuation of humanity’s infinite curiosity and desire to go beyond “acceptable” limits. On the contrary. It is our world of cynical calculation that keeps us grounded. A society driven forward by the civilizing effects of socialist struggle is also one that would raise its sights to the stars. Cynicism is a miserable perspective.