Moon Day - First Man

It's one small step for Nate McKenzie as he watched First Man...

Growing up in Northwest Ohio hasn't been the perpetual holiday that some might think. Sure, we get to enjoy all four seasons - sometimes all in the same day! - and we have fields of corn and beans for as far as the eye can see... that is, on those days when you can see through the haze of pollution spewing from the glowing stacks of the local oil refinery. But it's not all blessing after blessing.

For me, I have always been enamored by the local folklore. The stories of people from our area that made a name for themselves out in the big, bright world. Phyllis Diller is from here. So is Hugh Downs. I grew up with the Hit the Lights crew and hung out with Al Snow at the Allen County Fair. Oh, also, that doctor that "allegedly" killed his wife via carbon monoxide poisoning because he was in love with someone else? I used to spend the night at his house because I was friends with his son.

Granted, that last one is more an example of infamy than celebrity.

I loved hearing about these people and their accomplishments because I envied them; I wanted to follow in their footsteps. Never an easy path to follow, but the constant winter slush makes it a bit less arduous to see the path they tread.

However, as a kid, there was one name that invoked a sense of awe and wonder above all others: Neil Alden Armstrong.

Wapakoneta, Ohio, Armstrong's hometown, is just down the highway from me. Anyone who has ventured down Interstate 75 has seen the iconic Moon-shaped dome of the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum. Everyone that grew up around here has taken a class field trip to stroll through the building, gazing upon giant pieces of metal that went to space and the rocks they carried back. The Armstrong Museum is a hallowed place to many of us; Neil himself, a legend, whose mythos we were barely able to wrap our young minds around.

Neil Armstrong was my first hero. Before Larry Bird or James Dean, Neil's legacy was the pervading lore of my youth. When I would listen to my father and uncle talk about space, I'd think of Neil Armstrong stepping off Eagle's ladder, imprinting himself forever onto a new world. That image buoyed, as if it was Neil's index finger on the underside of my chin, directing my gaze upward. So, when I first heard that a biopic about Armstrong was in the works, I hoped for the best, but feared the worst. It took me three months from its release to finally watch First Man. Not seeing this movie in a theater will forever be one of my biggest regrets as a fan of the silver screen.

With a torrent of sight and sound, the cold opening sequence throws you into the cockpit of a test flight. Right away, director Damien Chazelle sets your heart precipitously on the edge of something brazen, forcing the mind to consider who this man, Neil Armstrong, truly is. In this role, the man playing that man, Ryan Gosling, sets a new benchmark for himself.

I won't go into much detail about Ryan Gosling's performance. Armstrong's own children have said that Gosling was an accurate embodiment of their father. Gosling captured Armstrong's mannerisms and, more importantly, he illustrated the internal battle Armstrong fought over the immense loss of family and friends. Subtlety is difficult to emulate without venturing into monotony, especially when it's meant to be a focal point, but Gosling does so with grace and due respect to the man he portrayed.

Likewise, for Claire Foy. I won't belabor the point that she is wildly talented, and that talent is on full display as Janet Armstrong. How is it possible that an actor can convey such a cool visage and a raging frustration at the same time? The true heart of the Armstrong family, Foy is pristine and astounding in her role. The anger conveyed when Janet finally detonates against Neil's concrete stoicism hits you in your chest with G-force level power.

To say that First Man was reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey would be inadequate. Traversing the space between homage and caricature is tenuous. Whether intentional or not, Chazelle created a masterpiece of film-making that has little competition in this or any other era. The Academy leaving First Man off of the Best Picture list is an all-time egregious snub. While I don't put much stock into awards shows, many do, and recognizing great film-making does bolster a feeling of accomplishment in those that create art in the industry. In that regard, failing to include First Man as a Best Picture nominee is akin to leaving the Moon landing off of the list of all-time greatest feats of human accomplishments.

There is a difference between movies and film; one is entertainment and one is art, and only in the rarest, and best, cases is a film simultaneously both. In those instances, the coalescing element is the overall experience. First Man is an experience which exists in that very tiny sliver of overlap in the art and entertainment Venn diagram. A vital reason for that is a delicate fusion of talent between director and musical composer.

Spielberg and Williams; Scorsese and Shore; Villeneuve and Jóhannsson.

With First Man, Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz have tapped into a process of world building that is more performance art than movie making. Even the most minuscule aspects of a scene are considered and deliberate, each frame and each note in ebb and flow. In the scene where Armstrong and fellow astronaut pilot David Scott are attempting to rendezvous Gemini 8 with the Agena unmanned spacecraft, Hurwitz' "Docking Waltz" is an ethereal partner to Chazelle's direction. Reminiscent of Chopin's Nocturne No. 2 in E-Flat Major, the piece showcases Hurwitz's deft touch, guiding the visuals along with precision and care.

Of course, there is no more perfect example of their harmony than the depiction of the climactic Moon Landing.

Remember watching a movie as a kid and feeling absolute astonishment at what you were seeing?

As the elevator carrying Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins ascends to the platform at the top of Apollo 11, you begin to understand the immensity of the rocket that is to propel these three explorers into space, to an uncharted world, embossed into the annals of history. All through the launch, the journey, the arrival, and the touchdown, I felt like a child again. I can't remember the last movie that did that. Chazelle and Hurwitz conjure a deeply recessed sense of inspiration and awe. They show, rather than tell, and they do so with a capacity for streaming their creation directly into your limbic system in a way that feels like sorcery. Then they go just a bit further. The Eagle lands, the hatch opens, the air rushes out, and... silence.

You can call First Man a beautiful waltz, a ballet, a towering opera. It would also be true to say that it is a slow-burn dramatic action movie. It's fun, it's beautiful, it's emotional, it connects you to moments in the past that you have only read about and understood in an abstract way. The most important thing that First Man does, however, is that it shows you who Neil Armstrong truly was. Not just the idea of a man so important to our history, but the history of the man himself. The history of hiding pain behind a veil of strength; existing in a vacuum, despite a barrage of debris hurtling towards you at thousands of miles per second. Armstrong's greatest attribute was also the font of his burden - his ability to internalize emotion and persevere. With each tragedy, Armstrong creates a partition for that moment, and continues forward. His refusal to deal with death put a great strain on the Armstrong family, his wife Janet in particular. This ability to ignore outside influences and focus on a solution to the problem at hand is what kept him alive many times over as a pilot. The origin of that weakness and that strength is his singular drive and his brilliant mathematical mind. The solution to a life and death equation is easier than actually facing the reality of life and death. But as First Man shows, it is not only necessary, but possible to deal with those issues and become not only a great man to the world, but also a great father to your children, a great husband to your wife.

It all begins with one small step.

Follow Nate on Twitter @thoughtsinnate

Images - IMDb

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