Bracelet designs

The deep sleight of hand of the “first man”

As you probably know, the space community is very excited right now as NASA and Space-X have confirmed plans to get people back to the Moon within the next few years. The last time humans walked on the moon was during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. It’s been 50 years (!) since we’ve been this far in space. Regardless of the reasoning behind this new inspiration, there is a reinvigorated spirit in the air around space exploration and how modern technology can augment what the Apollo missions have accomplished.

This new era of manned space missions to the Moon is exhilarating in itself, but it also makes me think about my favorite movie of 2018 – Damien Chazelle’s masterpiece first man. Specifically, I remember that first watch and how it blew me away. Prior to its release, the film’s marketing (correctly) sold it as a story about Neil Armstrong going to the moon and performing a feat that seemed impossible. A man walking on the moon. A milestone in humanity that’s easily on top of “holy shit, can you believe we did this?” pyramid. Plus, as we all know by now, the process of getting Neil and Buzz Aldrin to the moon was an arduous one. The crew constantly worked long hours, straining relationships and families. The technology had to be developed, which did not always go as planned. There were even casualties along the way, unfortunately. However, these deaths and the extreme stress placed on the crew were not in vain. In July 1969 Apollo 11 went to the moon and Neil Armstrong made history as the first person to walk on the moon. What movie, right?

Except it’s not that at all first man is about. The opening shot of the film shows Neil playing with his young daughter, Karen, who we have just discovered is dying of cancer. It was an emotional shock that I did not expect. As this opening sequence draws to a close, there’s a searing shot of Neil putting his daughter’s bracelet in a drawer, which is phenomenal symbolism of Neil doing the same with his emotions. It encloses them and becomes a shell of itself. That’s when you realize that first man it’s not about Neil going to the moon at all.

Throughout the film, we see Neil immersing himself in his work. He is totally committed to the Apollo project. He’s one of NASA’s best pilots. He is intelligent and intuitive. Not a second passes when you question his dedication to the cause. In fact, he is almost exclusively true to his mission. As a result, much of what is sold in marketing comes to fruition. We see the challenges NASA faced in getting Apollo to the moon. We can see how difficult it is for everyone. This level of math and science has never been attempted before. In one of the film’s most thrilling scenes, we see Neil orbiting the earth and nearly losing his life in the process. If not for his ingenuity and elite piloting skills, it might have ended there for him. Regardless of the obstacles however, he remains deeply focused on what is in front of him. Some might say this is to his detriment, as his relationship with his wife and sons becomes strained. And not just because he’s often away from home, but because he’s always stoic.

The truth about first man, and the brilliance of its sleight of hand is that it’s essentially a father trying to come to terms with his loss. Losing a child is unfathomable, and you don’t know how anyone will react, but for Neil, it made him distant. He struggled in his daily life (as many of us probably would). Again, he had locked away his emotions with the bracelet. He kept busy not to think about his grief, which obviously worked because there are a few scenes in the middle of the movie where we see Neil at home and he still envisions Karen in their life. It’s a great reminder to the audience that they’re still thinking of her, still crying for her. We quickly realize that his work and his mourning are intimately linked, and, in this way, first man gets to have his cake and eat it too. As a framing device, the Apollo 11 mission itself is compelling, and there’s plenty of drama to be had. However, from Neil’s perspective, his experience inside the mission comes from a place of anguish and personal suffering.

Going to the moon wasn’t about beating the Russians. It wasn’t about politics or science. It was not a question of realizing a kind of historical heritage. For Neil, it was his way of closing the page. For Neil, it was about healing and saying goodbye. Neil went to the moon… to cry. Which is exactly why, as Neil and Buzz arrive on the moon, there’s no tension or drama. Chazelle doesn’t put any emphasis on the specifics of the mission and what they’re supposed to do. No, most of the footage involves close-ups of Neil staring into the distance. Reflective. Grief. Say his goodbyes. In a very tangible way. We see Neil approach the crater and pull something out of his pocket. It’s his daughter’s bracelet. Once again leaving me speechless. But it is completely logical. After locking up his emotions all this time, along with the bracelet, this is the first moment he faces his pain. A simple gesture flooded me with emotions that were difficult to articulate. An incredible moment enhanced by Justin Hurwitz’s incredibly underrated score (his best work yet) and extraordinary in its emotional motto.

There’s something really deep about the idea that sometimes we have to go to great lengths for healing and closure. For mankind, going to the Moon is literally as far as one has gone. It’s a feat that will forever be etched in the history books. And Neil was desperate to get there. It meant everything to him. Every choice Neil makes throughout the film complements its drama and overall story, but allegorically it’s incredibly powerful and personal.

It’s also what makes the final shot of the film between Neil and Janet so beautiful. There was a distinctive rift in their relationship as Neil sank deeper into his work. He worked long hours, the assignments were always dangerous, and even when he was at home he was emotionally closed off. Yet, after his moment on the moon and getting the closure he needed, he was finally able to connect with her in some way. Separated by glass, but another gesture comes into play as he reaches for her. She goes back. Maybe symbolically there might still be something between them, but for the first time in the movie there is hope.

There’s a lot to love first man in terms of direction and cinematography. Its settings and overall aesthetic are immersive in the period. Its score and sound design are phenomenal. And Ryan Gosling is arguably giving the best performance of his career. The stoicism and calm emotion he brings to Neil is truly magical. Along with Chazelle and writer Josh Singer, he’s one of the main reasons the film’s sleight of hand is so emotional. The craftsmanship showcased in this film is masterful, and given the talent involved, that wasn’t too shocking, but to frame humanity’s greatest achievement as a smaller, intimate portrayal of humanity? I didn’t see that coming at all. This may be part of the time. In October 2018, my son was three years old (about to turn four), roughly the same age as we see Karen in the movie. It was really difficult to separate myself from the film. So maybe I’m biased, but first manThe sleight of hand hit me like a hammer. Go to the moon to cry. It’s an experience I won’t soon forget.