I went to see First Man yesterday, the Neil Armstrong biopic directed by the neophyte wunderkind Damien Chazelle. The lunar voyage epic is the thirty-three year olds third Hollywood film and in my opinion his bravest to date. The film is a rather meditative examination of the strong silent type, of men that put their fears and emotions second to everything else.
Ryan Gosling is rather exceptional at bringing the legendary astronaut to life and left me in profound awe of Armstrong’s blind devotion to realizing the impossible. “We need to fail. We need to fail down here so we don’t fail up there.”
As I wrote last month, the milestones that humanity has achieved concerning aviation and our ascent into the outer reaches have all come at the expense of warring tribes, superpowers vying to bury their enemies in the mud.
Flying by the seat of their pants at the best of times, Chazelle is quick to establish that there was no well-heeled plan for a lunar landing much less a way to get there. The leading experts of the day were simply a collection of white-coats stabbing blindly in the dark.
With such context in mind, it gives you even more respect for the men that put their necks on the line. There was no back-up plan for these pioneers, no emergency button to bring them back safe and sound. Every single time these men went up into the great unknown there was no assurances they would ever make it home for supper.
As I sat in the darkness I couldn’t help chewing over a constant thought: “Is there enough indulgent action for audiences to swallow this epic tale?” I came across this fascinating op-ed piece this morning from Variety staffer Owen Gleiberman that transcribed my feelings. As he deftly writes: "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."
The more I engage with technology, the more I realize how desensitized we’ve become to the world outside our smartphones and Xbox consoles. It reminds me of the old adage; if a falling tree isn’t captured and shared on your pocket-sized computer did it ever really fall in the first place?
Fantasy has become the order of the day and people would rather believe that the impossible is over-rated. Besides, they’re far too busy getting their rocks off in some virtual pleasure dome. Or as Jelani Cobb eloquently puts it; “Selfless service is no longer the most esteemed virtue of democracy; celebrity is."
Ever the optimist, I’d like to believe there are those that can savour and grow from the past. In fact, everything there is to know about overcoming adversity can be found in the opening sequence as an icy-cool Armstrong pilots an X-15 into Earth's outer orbit. The year is 1961 and the sub-orbital flight comes off as a highly dangerous procedure, the rocket-powered aircraft jarring wildly as it labours in the transonic zone.
All at once however, everything grows calm as the hypersonic craft reaches zero-gravity and rises into the velvet darkness of space. As Armstrong looks out over the radiant blue below, a truly sublime spectacle, all the noise falls away and for the briefest of moments our hero bears witness to the meaning of life.