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‘First Man’ Is a Powerful Portrait of Masculinity—We Shouldn’t Sleep on It

The not-so-Oscar-worthy film feels more worthy of discussion than ‘Green Book’ or ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’

by Frederick Blichert
Jan 24 2019, 9:00pm

Image courtesy of Universal Picture 

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

The 2019 Academy Award nominations were announced on Tuesday, all but delivering the final blow to the once obvious front-runner First Man, an odd omission from the major categories, especially considering some of the less-than-memorable contenders.

First Man is a thoughtful, lyrical exploration of masculinity as well as a celebration of human achievement. It also tastefully gives America its due without taking patriotic mythmaking at face value. So why was it excluded from every major Oscar category? (Props to the sound, production design, and VFX folks who did get recognized for First Man though.)

The nominations certainly weren’t bad. Roma and The Favorite sweeping up the most noms is cause for celebration, though Green Book, Vice, and Bohemian Rhapsody's continued success on the awards circuit is, to put it mildly, not. While other films—You Were Never Really Here, Sorry to Bother You, If Beale Street Could Talk, Widows, The Rider, Destroyer, and Blindspotting, to name a few—certainly deserved more Oscar recognition than they got, perhaps even more than First Man, what stands out about the Neil Armstrong biopic-cum-moon landing drama is its conspicuously Oscar-friendly pedigree.

It stars buzz-worthy “serious” actors like Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, commemorates an important historical event on the cusp of its 50th anniversary, is distinctly American, offers a compelling family drama, and is the latest from Damien Chazelle, whose win for directing La La Land alone would typically make him a contender (the Academy might also feel a little indebted to him for the rather spectacular tease of mistakenly giving La La Land the best picture trophy before taking it back in 2017).

When a second trailer for First Man dropped following its Venice Film Festival premiere, VICE’s River Donaghey as good as threw his hands in the air, saying, “Just give Chazelle the Oscar already,” because, well, duh, it’s such an obvious Oscar movie.

But, and I can’t stress this enough, it’s actually worthy of it’s initial Oscar bait-iness in a way many past Oscar winners (or nearly winners in La La Land’s case) frankly are not.

The First Man trailer in question actually accomplishes what few trailers do. It gives a clear sense of what the film genuinely accomplishes, albeit suggesting more heart-pounding action than you’ll find in the film’s more contemplative tone. What could have been just another film about a Great Man who leads courageously, finding glory and his place as a national icon, is anything but.

Instead, First Man reframes history’s Great Men as small-m men. Real men. Vulnerable men made to put on artificially tough faces for fear of seeming soft.

This is no more true than in Armstrong himself, who we first meet as a test pilot before he joins NASA. Armstrong’s daughter Karen dies early on in the film, taken from the Armstrongs as a child due to a malignant tumor and pneumonia. The loss of Karen, we can infer, is one of the driving forces in Armstrong’s life and career, in its own peculiar way, eventually leading him to walk on the moon in a rather melancholy finale.

Gosling is a terrific choice here. His trademark quiet introspection translates beautifully to Armstrong’s tendency to bottle up emotions and leave his family with little to hold onto.

He’s a fully three-dimensional character though, offering genuine warmth and even a romantic side, when he chooses to show it. Gosling’s chemistry with Foy’s Janet Armstrong adds a degree of humanity we don’t often associate with the legendary astronaut. She puts up with a lot, having to wonder, sometimes aloud, whether he talks to anyone about the loss of their daughter.

These moments offer the clearest hints of Armstrong’s vulnerability. While open discussions about his emotions (or some therapy) would likely do wonders for the man, he instead isolates himself—he goes to the fucking moon, after all, about as isolated as you can get.

In short, Armstrong is fragile for a variety of perfectly good reasons, not least of which are the deaths of his daughter and NASA comrades. But, despite his intelligence and work ethic, he has no tools to cope, grieve, or move on.

2019 is as good a time as any to reward this kind of story, which looks back at history and teases out what wasn’t so obvious at the time by putting a fresh set of eyes it. The American Psychological Association has recently established new guidelines for working with men and boys, acknowledging the harmful effects of “traditional masculinity.”

The move, necessary and evidence-based as it clearly was, was not met with universal approval. Traditional masculinity, it turns out, is rather appropriately not well suited to the kind of introspection needed to accept the wisdom of the APA. Elsewhere, Gillette sparked an absurd debate when it suggested, in a now famous or infamous ad, depending on who you ask, that maybe male aggression and sexual harassment are bad, and that we as men could strive to be better.

First Man might simply be asking questions that some viewers don’t want answered—and maybe it displays male vulnerability a bit too prominently at a time when some reactionary men mistakenly perceive manhood to be under attack altogether.

That vulnerability runs through the film thematically in important ways too.

While First Man doesn’t offer any new info on the moon landing, it provides a perspective I’d never seen before. It’s easy to picture everything at NASA as being state-of-the-art. A kind of real-world Starfleet operating at peak efficiency, with every resource necessary. The reality is much less glamourous. Yes, these were great minds, working with the backing of a superpower, but they were very much building everything from the bottom up. Relearning the basics of flight to apply to impossible settings. When Janet Armstrong accuses NASA’s top brass of being “a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood,” it’s hard not to side with her.

The film’s opening scene puts Armstrong in a test plane, before his time at NASA. It’s chaos as he barely maintains control, speeding through the air and eventually just barely poking out into space. Was this intentional? Will he make it back down? We rarely get answers to these questions in the moment. Instead we have Armstrong’s point of view of the inside of a series of what feel suspiciously like models made of balsa wood, ready to break apart and kill him any minute now for daring to aim too high.

The film makes every fumble count hard, from Armstrong’s bruised body after crashing a lunar lander during training, to the tragedy of the Apollo 1 team, incinerated in a test shuttle when the over-oxygenated cabin was met with an electrical fire.

Chazelle tells this story beautifully, and with restraint. It’s such a well-established part of history that we might question why the film even exists. The film takes place roughly between the events of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, two films that offer valuable context surrounding the parts of history we all know. And yet First Man feels so essential, more than holding its own within the unofficial NASA trilogy. It does so by giving us such a powerfully focused glimpse into one man’s experience.

So what gives? Why has First Man been such a no-show on the awards circuit. It hasn’t even courted controversy in any real way, save for a few grumbles from viewers who clearly missed the point of the film, bemoaning the omission of a scene in which the astronauts plant an American flag on the moon.

Compared to a white savior narrative, a director with a history of whipping his dick out in front of unsuspecting colleagues, Islamophobic tweets, bi-erasure, and the decades’ worth of allegations against Bryan Singer, First Man cleans up pretty nice and came out well ahead of some of the Oscars class of 2018.

The Academy Awards are the most interesting they’ve been in recent memory, with a slew of entertaining, moving, intelligent, and important films vying for top honors, alongside some B-grade trash that feels dated, boring, or just plain weird.

But weirdest of all is First Man’s absence from the conversation almost altogether. We really shouldn’t have slept on this one.

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