Damien Chazelle likes protagonists who have one defining goal. They are driven and they are ready to sacrifice in order to achieve their goals. Their ambitions are jealous gods and don’t allow for any other gods beside them. Relationships? Happiness? Love? These take a backseat. Chazelle’s characters’ pursuit of excellence requires them to be singleminded. You don’t get there by being good at many things, you get there by being excellent at the one thing that gets you there. And there’s a price to singlemindedness.
Looking at it differently, you could also say this: Damien Chazelle’s protagonists are frightened, of their feelings and responsibilities – and if you want to run away, what better destination than the moon?
The Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) of First Man (2018) is different from Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) in Whiplash (2014) or Sebastian Wilder (also Gosling) in La La Land (2016) in that his ambition results from his fear, at least in part. Don’t get me wrong: Armstrong is undoubtedly courageous. When the film begins, we first see him as a test pilot flying an X-15 spaceplane and narrowly avoiding a catastrophic crash due to his presence of mind: Armstrong is steady, he is reliable. He is a brave man, but his heroism isn’t showy, it’s not the machismo of The Right Stuff. Yet his brand of courage does not help him in the face of the loss of his 2 1/2-year-old daughter Karen to a brain tumour.
Ironically, it doesn’t make him less suitable as an astronaut, it makes him more suited to the singleminded pursuit of that one, epochal goal: putting the first man on the moon, and ahead of the Russians at that. When Armstrong is interviewed for a place on the Gemini programme, he is asked if the death of his daughter will have an effect on him, and he answers: “I think it would be unreasonable to assume that it wouldn’t have some effect.” At that point it sounds like he is acknowledging his own grief, rather than putting on a stoic face: of course he would be affected by the tragedy, as any human being would. Except it works the other way around: Armstrong’s difficulties dealing with his loss make his mission look more and more like an attempt to run away from the part of him that is a husband and a father. It is never spelled out, but my impression was this: he looks at his family and he sees loss, and the longer the more, he sees the same loss when he looks at his colleagues and friends, as disaster and tragedy strike the space programme repeatedly. Armstrong withdraws into his work until all that matters is the mission.
Does First Man‘s version of Neil Armstrong have a death wish? He is not suicidal; we see him saving the day several times when his mission is in jeopardy. But at the same time he is a man who, as the film goes on, is more and more intent on running away from his responsibilities other than the mission. In a film whose setpieces include the friggin’ moon landing, what I’d consider to be the key scene is not set in a cockpit or on the lunar surface: it is set in the Armstrong family home, as Janet Armstrong (played by an excellent Clare Foy) makes her husband sit down with his two sons and tell them the truth, that he may not come back from this trip. It is too big a step for Neil Armstrong to put down his suitcase and face his wife and his two boys to tell them what he is only too aware of: like his friends Elliot See, like Charles Bassett and the three astronauts that died in the Apollo 1 fire, he may be going to his death. For all his prowess as an aeronautical engineer and an astronaut, he is putting his life in the hands of a fickle fate. Janet is not the stereotypical wife of so many stories whose petty bourgeois concerns stand in the way of her husband’s greatness. She is a supportive figure, but her support has its limits. She puts her finger on Armstrong’s weakness, his fear, and if her husband is intent on risking his life, he will at least show his family the respect of looking them in the face and telling them that this might be a one-way trip. The scene suggests that Neil Armstrong would rather face the cold vacuum of space than look at the faces of his children and tell them the truth.
Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon. His achievement, as much as the achievement of his crew and of the men and women working on the mission, was without doubt a giant leap for mankind. But showing one kind of bravery doesn’t mean that you are not afraid. For the Neil Armstrong of Chazelle’s film, the hardest journey, and the one that in the end may take the most courage, is the journey home.