The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s review of “First Man,” click here.
“First Man” proves three things.
One: Damien Chazelle is a great director.
Two: Ryan Gosling is a great actor.
Three: We humans are sometimes at our best when we’re incredibly stupid.
You already know the fact-based film’s plot, at least in its abbreviated form: Neil Armstrong goes to the moon. Then he comes home. There is a lot more than that, of course, involving physics and engineering and stuff. And many of the flight scenes, up to and including the successful Apollo 11 mission, are shot so well and with such intensity that it is entirely possible-slash-probable you will forget that you already know the end of the story.
Chazelle’s last two films — 2014’s “Whiplash” and 2016’s “La La Land”— were both about the human drive to achieve greatness. More subtly they were about how that drive always, always comes with sacrifice — of mental health, of artistic integrity, of personal relationships. “First Man” is also about that, but it emphasizes that human beings (as a species, if not always as individuals) will sacrifice and sacrifice and take chance after chance not because we have to in order to live, but in order to live fully.
Look at all the chances humans have taken that have ultimately turned out really well. Think of mushrooms and the first first men. “Thing grow on log,” thought Grok. “Me put in mouth.” That was one step. But eventually it grew to, “Og put thing in mouth. Now Og dead. Me try thing that look ALMOST EXACTLY like make-Og-dead thing.” Elsewhere, someone thought of squeezing a cow’s udder and putting what came out in his mouth; someone else thought of a way to make that liquid a solid; someone else figured out how to pull those things and some rice and some butter all together, and that’s how we got mushroom risotto.
Throughout history, we have taken chance after chance knowing that we might — or, sometimes, probably will — die, just because we want to see what’s possible. It’s why we ate mushrooms, and it’s why we decided it was a good idea to strap members of our species into a metal bucket and launch it into a place that is literally impossible for us to inhabit.
We’re not the only species that takes risks and fails, but we do it on such extraordinary levels. “First Man,” like “The Right Stuff” before it, is not about triumph, though the men in both stories eventually do triumph. The two films are, at their core, celebrations of failure.
I worry we’re getting less and less comfortable with failure, at recognizing it as the only way to succeed. Perfection — at least the illusion of it — surrounds us in everything from advertisements to Instagram. We’ve come to believe that success should be easy, so if something is difficult we must be doing it wrong. “First Man” reminds us that if something is difficult, we’re probably doing it right. Achievement comes from pushing through fear, pushing through doubt, pushing through screw-up after screw-up.
The film will probably inspire some kids to be astronauts, which is both understandable and wonderful. Those of us who won’t be applying, though, should be inspired as well. We should be inspired to go out and fail.