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‘First Man’ and the Myth of the Stoic Man

Plus some other random thoughts about the new Ryan Gosling drama

Warning: There will be spoilers. Don’t read this if you haven’t seen First Man. And I’m not talking about the fact that Neil Armstrong lands on the moon.

Here’s something nobody ever says to Ryan Gosling in First Man: “You should smile more.” He plays Neil Armstrong, the emotionally guarded pilot who will become the first human being to set foot on the moon. As portrayed by Gosling, Armstrong is a driven, pragmatic guy, consumed more with getting the job done right than receiving any personal glory along the way. Armstrong, who died in 2012 at the age of 82, is the kind of American male we tend to admire: unfussy, unpretentious, exuding a can-do spirit. In a world that’s uncertain, we gravitate toward men who seem unflappable—when everything else is falling apart, they remain cool customers.

But while watching First Man, which is a captivating, skillfully made biopic, I couldn’t stop thinking about the assumptions the movie makes about how we view men like Armstrong. La La Land director Damien Chazelle doesn’t really try to puncture Armstrong’s heavily armored exterior, respecting his insular nature by giving us a story that’s as no-nonsense as its protagonist. But while it’s appropriate that First Man doesn’t try to turn Armstrong into Mr. Personality—it would be false to who the man was—there’s nonetheless something telling about the virtue it wraps Armstrong in.

For all the strides we’ve made as a society in embracing emotion and becoming unafraid of acknowledging that men have plenty of feels, too, First Man, which is based on James R. Hansen’s biography, recalls a bygone era in which such outward expressions were considered weak or unmanly. The movie isn’t just a period piece in terms of depicting NASA’s 1960s pursuit of reaching the moon—it’s also a snapshot of a certain brand of rugged, macho individualism that’s not nearly as fashionable as it once was. And so, the movie’s tension comes from the filmmakers trying to both celebrate Armstrong’s impassiveness and figure a way around it.

To that end, First Man introduces a delicate through-line to suggest that, while Armstrong seemed stoic to those around him, he secretly grieved for his daughter Karen, who died when she was two. After crying in his office alone following her death, he almost never mentions her again throughout the film, although we suspect she’s never far from his mind. (Our suspicion is confirmed when, as Armstrong is preparing to leave the moon at the end of First Man, he drops her bracelet on the lunar surface, a tribute to her life—and, perhaps, a way for him to metaphorically let go of his grief.) Essentially, Armstrong bottles up his feelings, lest they destroy him.

Gosling has made a career playing strong, silent types like this. Ever since bursting onto the scene in The Notebook, he’s mostly portrayed emotionally distant leading men in movies like Drive and Only God Forgives. (He was perfect as a replicant in Blade Runner 2049.) Even his La La Land character was reserved, and now in First Man he strips away any ounce of charisma from Armstrong. Even so, First Man doesn’t present that stoicism as an impediment, instead it argues, it’s what helped him succeed.

That’s an old but still pervasive notion about achievement—that it occurs when people toughen up and don’t let feelings impair their judgment. To Chazelle’s credit, his movie is ambivalent about that mindset, noting the sacrifices Armstrong made to reach his lofty goal. (His wife, played by Claire Foy, can’t quite connect with him. And he doesn’t seem particularly close to his other children.) And yet, First Man plays out a lot like Chazelle’s previous films, Whiplash and La La Land, in its dispirited supposition that driven individuals who set aside everything else are the only ones who can end up winners.

Many people would have a hard time making that deal—ignoring personal relationships and one’s own emotional life in the name of a quest—but First Man suggests it’s what led to one of America’s greatest triumphs. And it’s an inherently masculine kind of triumph. We’re awed by men who have such control over their emotions that they can block out distractions and self-doubt. Humans are flawed, fickle creatures, First Man tells us, but Armstrong was different, better. And while the movie mourns for its protagonist’s emotional unavailability, it argues that, ultimately, it was worth it.

That vision of heroism is awfully old-fashioned—and also potentially reactionary. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody certainly felt that way, contending that First Man “is a right-wing fetish object. It is a film of deluded, cultish longing for an earlier era of American life, one defined not by conservative politics but, rather, by a narrow and regressive emotional perspective.” Brody overstates the case, but he did make me wonder what the movie would have been like if it was about a female character. An unsmiling, stoic woman would probably have been viewed as “odd” by viewers and critics—we’re so accustomed to perceiving women as “emotional,” while men are “reasonable” and “logical.” Ironically, though, if a woman wants to be taken seriously—at the movies, but also often in life—she’s expected to leave emotion behind. In other words, she needs to be more like a man.

This isn’t to suggest that First Man is sexist. (Chazelle and Gosling actively wrestle with Armstrong’s emotional opacity and its limitations.) But it does nonetheless feed into a mythic story that we tell ourselves about what success requires. First Man makes the case that, sure, Neil Armstrong walled himself off from all those around him, but look at what he achieved. My counterargument: If you don’t feel anything from your achievements, does it matter?

Here are a few other takeaways from First Man.

#1. I wish Tig Notaro could have played the Claire Foy role.
Claire Foy is the Emmy-winning star of The Crown. (She was also very good in the underrated Steven Soderbergh thriller Unsane from earlier this year.) In First Man, she plays Janet, Armstrong’s first wife, and she’s perfectly capable in the role. (Like a lot of long-suffering-wife characters, Janet is there mostly to be concerned and supportive—and to occasionally offer some tough love when her husband really needs it.) But because there’s a certain amount of cliché baked into the role, I kept longing for an actress who could give it a little twist. Basically, I really wish Tig Notaro could have played Janet.

For those not familiar, Notaro is a stand-up, writer and actress who received national attention in 2012 when, shortly after being diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer, she performed a set speaking frankly about her condition—as well as her mother’s recent death. Mixing humor and morbid observations, Notaro (who’s always been known for her dry, deadpan delivery) became a sensation, and an album of the show (titled Live) won her rave reviews.

Notaro’s story had a happy ending, thankfully: She beat cancer, and she found love, marrying actress Stephanie Allynne in 2015 and starting a family.

The reason why Notaro would have been a perfect Janet is that she has a genius ability to make every situation awkward in a very funny way. Even when Notaro is trying to sound enthusiastic or genuine, it comes across as sarcastic. She lets silences linger and doesn’t worry about buddying up to her audience so that they’ll warm to her. As she once put it, “I consider myself a comedian, even though there are long stretches where there’s not a laugh when I talk.” And when she’s on talk shows whose hosts don’t get her rhythm, she loves making them uncomfortable—it’s a treat to watch.

So having her play the stereotypical put-upon wife would be great. Every withering line reading would amplify the absurdity of this type of character: You think you’re unemotional, Neil. Get a load of Tig Notaro.

#2. Nobody knows if Neil Armstrong really left his daughter’s bracelet on the moon.
As mentioned earlier, First Man culminates with Armstrong and his fellow Apollo 11 astronauts reaching the moon—and Armstrong leaving Karen’s bracelet behind as a memento. Because that isn’t a story people knew about the Apollo 11 landing, audiences have been wondering if it was invented for the film.

The answer is, yeah, probably.

ScreenCrush spoke with First Man screenwriter Josh Singer, who mentioned that there was a moment during Armstrong’s lunar walk when he hung out at Little West, a moon crater where he wasn’t seen by Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Singer says, “Everything else that they did on the moon was scripted. [Armstrong] jogging over to the Little West Crater … Why does he do that? What’s he do over there?”

That’s where Singer stepped in, inventing the idea that Armstrong drops the bracelet. But it was based on some research: The filmmakers spoke with Hansen, Armstrong’s biographer, who mentioned that many astronauts left keepsakes behind. Hansen thought it was very possible that Armstrong did the same for his dead daughter, and soon, Singer was convinced. As the screenwriter told ScreenCrush, “[B]ased on what he knew of Neil after all that time and based on all his interviews with everyone else [who] said, ‘I think this happened. I think he left something of Karen’s on the moon’ … I was like ‘All right, if it’s good enough for [Hansen], it’s good enough for me.’”

If it’s not factually accurate, it nonetheless provides an emotionally satisfying conclusion to Armstrong’s story. It does play a bit phony in First Man, but it’s the sort of heartwarming moment that works really well with audiences—even if it might be a total lie.

#3. There are SO MANY American flags in this movie.
When films premiere at prestigious festivals such as Cannes, there’s plenty of excitement. But sometimes, those premieres also inspire weird stories that can’t be immediately confirmed because, well, only a handful of folks have seen the movie. As a result, studios have to battle misleading or false impressions about their film before the general public gets to see it.

Such was the dilemma Universal faced with First Man, which was the opening night film at the Venice Film Festival back in August. The reviews were uniformly excellent, but there was also a bit of news that, because it was taken out of context, caused a really stupid, completely off-base controversy. Just as most viewers were becoming aware of First Man, they believed the American flag wasn’t featured in the movie at all.

Here’s what happened: The Telegraph reported, accurately, that First Man doesn’t show Armstrong actually planting the flag on the moon. Gosling explained the decision at Venice, saying, “I think this was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement [and] that’s how we chose to view it. I also think Neil was extremely humble, as were many of these astronauts, and time and time again he deferred the focus from himself to the 400,000 people who made the mission possible.”

Obviously, some true-blue Americans might be annoyed about that omission but, in the worst case of Film Festival Telephone ever, the story quickly spiraled out of control and got terribly warped. Soon, there were reports that the American flag never appeared in the film, inspiring dumb attacks from conservative writers and GOP congressmen who hadn’t seen First Man but were happy to pass judgment on it.

Universal tried its best to explain that, seriously, the American flag is all over First Man—we even see it on the moon!—but it was too late. By the time I saw First Man about a week later, it was already hilarious to note how many times the flag shows up. In fact, The Huffington Post went to the trouble of counting how many flag shots there are in First Man: “By our count, there are at least 18 times a flag (or several!) is present.”

So, that settles that. By the way, has anyone at Universal screened the movie for Buzz Aldrin? They’d better hurry up: Back in September, he seemed pretty mad about this no-flags business.

You’re not helping, Buzz.