First Man(liness)

I’m a little tired of manly manliness in cinema. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always have a soft spot Predator, Die Hard, or a good Spaghetti Westerns. But it’s 2018 and I’m kinda tired of that being the MO for male characters, especially manliness for the sake of manliness, like that 50s stoic, silent masculinity. In short, I’m really tired of ‘traditional’ masculinity, especially when it’s idolized and unquestioned.

Which leads me to First Man, the new movie by Damien Chazelle, director of Whiplash (excellent!) and La La Land (ehhhhh). First Man centers on one of my favorite topics: space exploration, particularly the effort to put a person on the moon, hence, y’know, the title. I like space. I think the Apollo Missions were terribly exciting, always have — I was one of those kids who absolutely consumed space stuff. That love of space was enough to beat out my trepidation about watching another Chazelle movie after La La Land.

Now, First Man is a very well made movie. It makes space travel terrifying in the best way possible, it’s claustrophobic and there is so little under your control. The movie really makes you feel that terror, and oh, it’s such a thrill. It’s such a shame, then, that square in the middle of that is Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong.

I don’t know much about Armstrong as a person; I haven’t read biographies and I only know him for his role in space exploration. I don’t purport to really know what he’s like as a person. I do know, however, that I found Gosling’s portrayal to be very frustrating. See, in First Man Armstrong is a very stoic character. We see him crack once or twice — in the aftermath of his daughter’s death, for example — but beyond that he’s borderline emotionless. Maybe there’s a world of emotion going on behind his face, but we’re never afforded a glance inside.

Throughout the film, Armstrong’s stoicism is portrayed to the point of blandness, he doesn’t really seem to feel much (which again, could be argued away as being due to his daughter’s death, but we’re never really allowed to know) and instead his main quality is that he is a driven, quiet man. While other astronauts are bantering about space he is silently committed to getting to the moon. He’ll take part in some family stuff, but at the end of the day, he is Quiet and Manly, focused on going to space. Other astronauts dying just makes him more committed, in addition to having Manly Fear so we know he’s scared (but not too scared). Gosling’s Armstrong is the epitome of that silent, stoic, 50s masculinity, and, as far as the movie is concerned, all the better for it.

First Man doesn’t say much of anything about Gosling’s version of masculinity, aside from extolling it (the other astronauts don’t have the right attitude, his wife [like all of Chazelle’s female characters] just doesn’t understand). Because, as the movie implicitly argues, Armstrong did such great things, and because he embodied this brand of masculinity, clearly it’s great. Underlying the movie is an adoration of his stoicism and drive.

And I am so damn sick of that brand of masculinity. I’d be fine with Armstrong in First Man being a selfish prick if he got called out on it and it was recognized as being a flaw; but instead the movie loves him for it. I’d be okay if we saw some more self-doubt behind that heroic facade, but he is constantly in the zone, never weak, never emotional, always masculine. There’s no real antagonist for that masculinity to butt heads with; no warring factions for Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name to outdo in A Fistful of Dollars, no equally over-the-top villains for John Matrix to vie against in Commando. Rather the doubts raised by his wife and friends fall like the words of a straw man on Armstrong’s manly, too-determined-to-listen ears. It’s frustrating, especially when recognized as the predecessor to the modern toxic masculinity that’s so problematic today.

And it’s 2018, for crying out loud! Masculinity doesn’t have to be so narrowly defined! Consider Chris Evan’s Captain America/Steve Rogers. There’s no doubt that he’s a Manly Man; dude’s jacked, he fights for AMERICA! and is a superhero. He’s also the nicest, sweetest member of the Avengers, the one who sees the best in everyone and supports those around him. He has his doubts and questions; he’s weak at times, but he presses on. His strength isn’t so much his muscles and physicality, but his gentle heart and belief in others. Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed in Creed is a boxer and the inheritor to both his father and Rocky’s legacies. But for all the machismo you’d expect in a boxing movie, we also see him doubt ridden, trying to make relationships work, and being called out on his masculine bullshit. In my beloved Pacific Rim, is Raleigh, a male main character whose primary role is providing the emotional support so other characters (particularly the Japanese woman Mako) can reach their full potential. None of these characters are any less ‘manly’ for these traits, rather in them we see a more complex, fuller, and more welcoming depiction of masculinity.

In the same way that a feminist approach to storytelling challenges the teller to create narratives where women are given agency and allowed to appear in a variety of roles, so too does it desire an allowance for male characters to take on more interesting dimensions. If Neil Armstrong was the embodiment of that style of stoic, selfish masculinity, couldn’t First Man have explored what was beneath that outer shell? Was he a husk of a man so bound by his need to be in control? Or was there genuine, painful emotion behind it? Could the narrative have questioned whether having all that to get to the Moon was worth it, rather than ending with him and his wife reconnecting? We’ve gotta get over this old-fashioned, idealized sort of manliness. It’s 2018, there’s more than one way to be a man.

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