“First Man,” Damien Chazelle’s turbulent and transporting drama about Neil Armstrong and his journey through the space program, was assailed within a day of its premiere at the Venice Film Festival last August. Voices from the right, who attacked Chazelle for having made a film about the moon landing that left out the astronauts planting the American flag on the lunar surface, accused “First Man” of trivializing American values, of making too little of its old-fashioned patriotic heroism. More recently, voices from the left have attacked Chazelle for creating a lost-in-the-past epic about white men and their achievements at the expense of everything (and everyone) else. In essence, they’ve accused “First Man” of making too much of its old-fashioned patriotic heroism.
It used to be that you had to wait for Harvey Weinstein to take down your movie during awards season. Now, social media does the job just fine. Let’s be honest: We’ve become a nation of attack dogs, and holier-than-thou moralistic self-righteousness is the fever that courses through our blood. The whole notion that there’s something politically off about “First Man” — that the film is unwilling to celebrate American valor, or that it’s not woke enough because nearly all its characters are straight-arrow white men — is facile in the extreme. I would argue that neither criticism is borne out by what’s on screen. There’s no denying, though, that the movie opened with a disappointing sputter at the box office, and when looking for the reasons why, the negative karma created by those dual attacks might seem to be an obvious culprit.
Yet my gut says no. Were there a whole bunch of America-first heartland types out there who would have been all too eager to see “First Man” but opted out because they grew convinced that the film was going to a piece of liberal “globalist” propaganda? I seriously doubt it. Were there a whole bunch of progressives out there who would have been all too eager to see “First Man” but opted out because they grew convinced that the film was going to be a piece of glory-days-of-the-white-patriarchy propaganda? I suspect not.
This leaves the “too cold” hypothesis. A number of people I know and respect disliked “First Man” intensely because they found it to be an emotionally distant movie. I’ll say up front that I’m mystified by that response. I’ve seen “First Man” twice, and more than ever I think it’s a journey, bold but laced with dread, a fully felt human drama with a hurtling mood of discovery. (The final shot, in which Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy touch hands through the glass, is sublime.) Yet is mine a minority view? Did the movie struggle to break through the top of the atmosphere because America found it too remote?
I think there’s another explanation. Damien Chazelle, in the three major dramatic features he has made (“La La Land,” “Whiplash,” and “First Man”), has proved himself to be a director of extraordinarily varied imagination and humanity and technological bravura. My instinct says that he’s going to be one for the ages, like Spielberg or Scorsese, and part of that mystique is that he’s a populist who aims high. He wants to be an artist who makes mainstream movies, and the whole concept of “First Man” was rooted in the idea that if Chazelle did it right, a great many people would surely want to turn out to experience the story his movie was telling. Certain subjects don’t age well, even if they retain a historical importance (were moviegoers last year clamoring to see a drama about the Pentagon Papers? maybe not), but a movie that told the story of the moon landing, all geared to the 50th anniversary of that world-changing event? I’m sorry, that sounded like a slam dunk.
I’m sure it felt that way to Chazelle, and to the executives at Universal and DreamWorks who backed the project. They must have thought: Who on earth wouldn’t want to see this? But just as the most accurate explanation for something is often the simplest, I think the explanation for why “First Man” has met with a ho-hum response at the box office — and a ho-hum response in the culture — comes down to something basic. The film is about the moon landing, and frankly, in 2018, no one gives a damn. Not really. Because they’ve seen it before. And they’ve been seeing it for most of the last 50 years.
The whole premise of the space program, apart from its highly theoretical strategic Cold War aspect, was at once technological and childlike. It was based on an elemental idea: Outer space is amazing! And who wouldn’t want to go there?
But the movies have been putting us there ever since. And they were putting us there even before the moon landing. The history of Hollywood science fiction looks, more than ever, like a meticulous rehearsal for the space age. I spent my youth watching astronauts land on forbidden planets in bad ’50s sci-fi movies that I caught on Saturday-afternoon TV, and in 1968, the year before the moon landing, a movie came out that seemed to not just anticipate but surpass it: “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Stanley Kubrick’s film treated the notion of moon landings as banal (there was a whole colony there, as if it was industrial New Jersey), and the film’s astronauts were already on their way to Jupiter. I was a kid when I saw the moon landing, live, on my family’s small black-and-white television on July 20, 1969, but I’d seen “2001” the year before, and that film profoundly impacted my experience of the moon landing. It made it feel a bit like a rerun. When Neil Armstrong said, “That’s one small step for man…,” it didn’t sound momentous to my ears. It sounded, quite honestly, like an ordinary guy trying to write a piece of momentous dialogue that would live up to the movie he was in.
By the late ’70s, the notion that the moon landing didn’t actually happen — that it was faked by the U.S. government — was already locked in as the first major conspiracy theory to come from the right more than the left. (It was popular enough that there was a Hollywood movie that played off it: the 1977 fake-Mars-landing thriller “Capricorn One.”) And though the idea that the landing was actually a hoax staged by Kubrick was, on every level, ludicrous, there was a resonance to the absurdity. The real message of the Kubrick moon-landing conspiracy theory wasn’t simply that America was already starting to morph into a nation of fake-news crackpots. It was that popular culture and reality were becoming one. They were fusing in our imaginations.
And nothing fused them like “Star Wars.” George Lucas’s exhilarating intergalactic fable was a great escape, but part of what it did was to co-opt the imagery of space and elevate it into a video-game religion. That may have been one of the reasons the space program faded; it began to seem prosaic by comparison. “Star Wars” was colorful and energized, but the moon, after we’d conquered it, remained barren and gray. What were we going to do, grow vegetables there? Once we’d been to the moon half a dozen times, and “Star Wars” had turned outer space into our new home away from home, who needed to go back? The moon had become a blank slate. It was “Star Wars” without the gizmos. And “Star Wars” was the space drama that a generation now lived inside.
The ultimate effect of the “Star Wars” movies was to revolutionize American film culture by transforming it from something reality-based into something fantasy-based. Space, which had once been a real place, became the setting for our new fundamentalist pop mythology. And one of the effects of that was to rob the moon landing of any quality of mystery — and, indeed, to displace it in our imaginations, not because it would ever be less than an extraordinary achievement, but because in 1969 it had a quality of awe, but now it had the aura of an ancient dusty prequel to the kinetic space opera we were all carrying around in our heads. The ads for “First Man” feature the bizarrely unappealing line, “Experience the impossible journey to the moon.” Leaving aside that the line should have been something like, “It took a human hero to go out of this world,” that ad copy inadvertently captures the staggering challenge that “First Man” ended up confronting in the marketplace: Who wants to see a movie about an “impossible” journey that we all know was, in fact, more than possible because it happened? Landing on the moon once seemed miraculous, transcendent, the stuff of dreams. The sad reality is that for too many people, it now seems boring.