First Man: A Portrayal of a Man and Masculinity : FIRST MAN MOVIE POSTER 2 Sided ORIGINAL Advance 27x40 ...

Note, First Man is a fictional telling of a true story, and as such all references to real people in this essay reflect that of the characters in the film, not the actual individuals.  Insights into characters come entirely from the film and do not necessarily reflect reality.


Damien Chazelle returns with his leading man from La La Land, Ryan Gosling, to make a very different film from the musical frolic.  Gosling portrays Neil Armstrong, the titular first man to walk on the moon, but those expecting a film that could just as easily by titled Apollo 11 will be bemused by the film that was presented.  First Man focuses on Neil as a man and his life; in doing so, it portrays a devastating depiction of masculinity.

After an opening scene of Neil flying an X-15 rocket plane and averting a crisis above the atmosphere to land safely, the emotional crux of the film is presented.  In 1961 the Armstrongs’ young daughter Karen lost her battle with cancer despite Neil’s obsessive nature taking meticulous notes and reaching out to the best physicians in the world.  At the funeral Neil is unable to maintain a calm demeaner while interacting with well wishers and instead shuts down leaving his wife Janet, portrayed by Claire Foy in an Oscar worthy role, to handle all the pleasantries.

Soon after, Neil applies for and is accepted for a position with the Gemini Project in Houston.  Despite Neil’s apparent indifference to the honor, Janet sees the move as a potential new beginning for the family.  Karen’s death cast a shadow over Neil; by leaving, Janet hopes that they both can start life anew, uninhibited by a trauma left behind.

The move to Huston it seems is unable to provide Neil a reprieve from the guilt he feels from Karen’s death.  He detaches from any emotional aspect of life giving all his focus to his profession, leaving his wife and two boys with no emotional presence.  In her want to understand what her husband is going through, Janet reaches out to his coworker and friend Ed White wondering if he ever talks about Karen with him or the other men at work.  The response of no to her inquiry doesn’t surprise Janet, but it does force her to acknowledge the extent to which Neil has been emotionally stunted by their loss.

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From this moment on, the film embodies the genre of tragedy.  No longer is Neil the hero that’s taught about in history classes, but instead is a broken man whose masculine ideals have removed him from the world of the living.  An effective robot, Neil continues to excel at his job, but becomes utterly incapable of existing outside of that environment.  By suppressing his emotional needs through an unhealthy dedication to work, Neil is rewarded with the important Gemini 8 mission.  This honor enforces the isolating habits he expresses.  Work consumes his life as the difficulties of space travel are preferable to the difficulties arriving from his trauma.  Science and engineering have definitive answers which are easier for Neil to comprehend than emotions and grief which are nebulous in nature.

When coworker and friend Elliot See dies in a crash, Neil’s isolation worsens.  Caught in a moment of what he perceives as weakness, he abandons Janet and their sons at See’s funeral reception and retreats home where he gazes apathetically at stars in the backyard.  Upon getting a ride home with Ed and his wife Patricia, Janet, lost to what Neil may be experiencing, pleads with Ed to try talking to her husband.  Ed obliges Janet’s request and approaches Neil only to be rebuffed by him in a rare display of emotion.  “Do you think I’m standing here in the backyard because I want to talk to someone” is Neil’s only response to his friend willing him away.  The funeral of Elliot See resulted in a temporary break in Neil’s mask of emotionlessness.  Because of Neil’s refusal to confront his demons, he ran from an emotionally stirring situation abandoning his family.  As a man, he believed that his emotions were unsightly, and in his self-imposed exodus, he increased an ever-growing chasm between him and his family.

Two years after See’s death, Neil is seriously injured when he crashes a Lunar Landing Research Vehicle.  That evening, he returns home with half his face bloodied and bruised.  Janet expresses immediate concern upon seeing the shape he’s in, but Neil, unable to accept her concern, fabricates a reason to immediately return to work ignoring his kids’ call for their father and further concerning a troubled Janet.  His masculinity has again forced him to flee when others express concern for him.  His detachment from his emotions and his refusal to look week extends in this moment to risking if not embracing physical harm.  It’s as if he rejects the truth that humans are physically frail to project masculine strength.  And yet, this self-destructive behavior is once again embraced by NASA awarding him Apollo 11 and with it the chance to be the first man to walk on the moon.

First Man' movie review: A glimpse of space, and ourselves

The climax of the film comes not with the landing or launch of Apollo 11, but hours before Neil leaves for the launch site.  An ever-detached Neil fuddles around his bedroom and home office packing and repacking his suitcase for the trip and month-long quarantine to follow.  A perturbed Janet confronts him and for the first time challenges him on his coldness.  She opposes him on his avoidance in discussing with his children the reality of his mission, that there is a very real chance he may never come home.  He attempts to deflect responsibility by insinuating that they must already be asleep, but Janet counters with the reality that they aren’t and accosts him for knowing that.  After years of an emotionally absent husband, she may have given up on him providing emotionally for her, but she refuses to allow him to abandon their sons without so much as a warning.

A cornered Neil gives in to Janet’s demand and agrees to sit down and talk with their sons.  Despite this resignation to his duty as a father, he still is unable to breach the subject with either of them.  Only after Janet askes the boys if they have any questions for him is he able to address them.  The younger son Mark questions about the length which their father will be gone, only now realizing that he will be without his father for a month’s time, but it’s the older son Rick who asks the pertinent question: is it possible that he won’t come home at all?  At this Neil is forced to confront the truth and let his children know that he may not return.  Conversation over, Mark emotionally hugs his father goodbye.  Tellingly the older boy Rick forgoes the emotionally pleasantry to only offer his father a handshake.

This parting moment between Neil and Rick is heartbreaking in its significance.  Multiple times earlier in the film, Rick would ask his father to play with him only for Neil to ignore his child in his dissociation from reality.  Rick lived his early childhood with a father who was only partly there, but who he was told was a hero.  In this moment, he is asserting his idolization of his father.  Rick embraces the cold, emotionless masculinity that Neil taught him by rejecting the emotional hug.


The Apollo 11 mission proceeds as planned.  Neil and Buzz Aldrin, Corey Stoll, land on the moon without much of a hitch.  Upon opening the hatch, however, Neil is welcomed with the blistering silence and emptiness of space.  All non-diegetic sound ceases at the moment that Neil steps out of the spacecraft, and yet the silence is deafening.  Removed from all outside stimuli, he is forced to confront his trauma.  Work effectively complete, there is nothing left for him to hide behind.  He gathers himself enough to jump on the surface, say his infamous words, and give Buzz the go ahead to join him, but is then consumed by his long-sequestered trauma.  The vastness of a nearby crater mirrors his pain, but also serves an apt resting place for his demons.  He ceremoniously casts a beaded bracelet spelling the name of Karen into the void symbolically releasing him from his trauma.  One week later, the Apollo 11 mission is completed and through the quarantine glass panels, Neil and Janet share a look of understanding.

Which First Man? Film Doesn't Depict Real Neil Armstrong (Op-Ed ...

This ending may serve as a necessity for existing in Hollywood. It provides a positive ending to the tragic preceding hours, but the film still acts as a cautionary tale.  Neil’s refusal to emotionally process the death of his daughter resulted in years of emotional stress if not abuse to his family.  Even worse is the potential that his debilitating coldness may have spread to his children afflicting another generation of Armstrongs. Claire Foy’s performance as Janet is the standout in recognizing this reality.  At multiple times it looks as though she’s on the brink of leaving Neil and yet she persists.  She cares for Neil, but his disaffectedness proves trying.  Through her, the harmfulness of Neil’s emptiness realized.  The juxtaposition of her love and emotion with his masculine frigidity embodies Chazelle’s brilliant character study.  First Man is a story of which only a few dozen can relate to in plot, but in using that singular backdrop expresses a universal, cautionary truth about the downfalls of masculinity.

Frozen II: The Problem with Unnecessary Sequels

#52FilmsbyWomen: Week 1

Frozen II (2019, Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck)

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I unabashedly love 2013’s Frozen. I think it’s the best film the Disney Animated Features put out that decade.  In 2013, Disney was, and still is, in a state of performative self-reflection. While I have serious misgivings about much of the output coming from this, Frozen is an example of how this can work by using the commentary on Disney’s tropes to create fully formed character arcs in its leading women.

In the first Frozen, Anna starts the film as a naive young woman subjected to the Disney trope of looking to find love at first sight.  Throughout the film, she grows and accepts that the necessity of marriage and the need to find love at first sight are unrealistic. Instead she’s saved by the familial love between sisters.  Similarly, Elsa starts the first film denying her true self and shutting out those who mean the most to her. She undergoes her own arc by learning to accept herself without resorting to isolation. In this way, “Let it Go” is both a subversion of and one of the best Disney “I want” songs of all time.

Frozen was a fully formed film with substantive character arcs that didn’t need further development.  However, we live in a capitalist society, and when a film makes over a billion dollars, a sequel is required whether the existing story can support it or not. That was the situation that Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck found themselves in when forced to create a sequel to their previously stand-alone film. With very little left to be developed in terms of character, Frozen II turned to the adventure of the week mentality that drove the Disney animated television series in the 90s.

This adventure of the week mentality is endemic to unnecessary sequels. Characters arcs are what drive good storytelling. When implemented correctly, characters can drive their own plot. Personal growth is a strong and relatable goal, and films that are created as stand-alone pieces let their characters develop into their better (or sometimes worse) selves. What then is left to be done in an unplanned sequel? If the protagonists are to remain unchanged, a film has 3 options: take the protagonist elsewhere, have the protagonist go through the same arc again, or deny the character any additional development.

Allowing a protagonist to go through a different arc is seldom done in a cash grab sequel as the producers are hesitant to change a character who has brought them significant income.  Sending protagonists through the same arc again was somewhat embraced in Frozen II’s plot.  Elsa must once again learn to trust Anna, a lesson which was conveniently unlearned between films. Finally denying the protagonists any additional development is what drives Frozen II and most unnecessary sequels. When characters have already gone through their emotional arcs, its often the simplest to just let them exist in an unrelated plot. This lazy solution is what makes up the majority of Frozen II. The characters learn nothing about themselves, but Disney makes another billion dollars.

If all you want as a movie-goer is to see characters you loved 6-years prior go on an adventure together, then Frozen II might be what you’re looking for. However, if your love of the original came from the development of characters, the emotions they experience, and how it reflects reality, then Frozen II offers you nothing.

Bombshell: Why Men Shouldn’t Make #MeToo Movies

Let me get this out of the way. I’m not saying that men should actually be barred from the making of films about certain topics. I’m also not saying that men are never the victims of sexual violence. What I’m saying is that inherent in the #MeToo movement is something distinctly feminine that the average male director, that Jay Roach, does not intrinsically understand.

Bombshell is the story of the sexual harassment complaints filed against Fox News CEO, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow).  The film follows three women who all were recipients of various levels of harassment from the CEO: Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), and Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie).  Each woman’s story is told in parallel during the months leading up to lawsuit.  The three differing current career placements represented by these women serves to portray the duration that Ailes’s criminality has subsisted.

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All three leads are excellent in their depictions of the real-life Fox News personalities.  Kidman’s time on screen is limited compared to the other two women as her impending and eventual firing is the inciting incident for the lawsuit.  Theron is terrifying in her transformation to the cold and calculating Kelly and serves as primary protagonist.  Meanwhile, Robbie’s Kayla serves as a the more approachable character balancing to the other two women’s jaded demeanor.  Despite the film being sold on its leading women, they have very minimal interaction with each other.  The way each woman individually interacts with the terrible scenario she’s been put in create a feeling of the isolation that reflect each of their realities.  Ailes, and the patriarchal hierarchy, turns them all into victims with no where to turn if they have any hope of working in their field again.

There-in lies the problem in this film’s ability to be a depiction of the #MeToo moment.  The reason that the movement exists, and why it specifically is attached to a hashtag, is to help women understand that they aren’t alone in their reality.  At one point in the film, Kidman’s character comments on the inability for the women in Fox News to work together in response to her refusal to call Megyn Kelly.  This theme is again touched on when Robbie’s character calls her coworker and friend Jess Carr (Kate McKinnon) in tears over the abuse she withstood, and McKinnon’s character only wishes she could have done more. These scenes could easily have been expanded upon and become the thesis for the film, exploring how powerful men abuse women and then use their power to isolate them. Instead Roach is more interested in regurgitating history and asking the audience to cheer as a monster gets his due without exploring the emotional core behind these stories.

Much of the communication between women about Ailes’s harassments is short snippets with minimal to no dialogue. Instead of victims comforting each other, the interactions between women is shot akin to gossip circles by Roach’s directorial decisions. Kelly’s investigation into the extent of Ailes’s harassment results in a chain reaction of women confronting each other to get names of their abusers. When the women do so, they don’t offer hugs of support, but confront one another somewhat stealthily in locations they could be caught. Even if this is the truth, this codes women as being conniving as opposed to supportive. This decision further makes the story about the Ailes and the other Fox News abusers rather than their victims.

Interestingly, despite the, justifiable, critical acclaim the three leading women are receiving for there performances, it’s in the supporting roles that I find the hints of what would have helped this film achieve what it’s being connected to.  The strongest moment of the film is the scene mentioned above where Robbie calls McKinnon in tears. In the few moments McKinnon has on screen during this scene she’s excellent. McKinnon’s character clearly feels terrible for turning down her friend earlier when she was approached in need.  Unfortunately, after using this tearful moment to emotionally activate the audience, these two characters never have a speaking moment between each other again.  The film refuses to let these women form a support network during what must be the hardest moments of Robbie’s character’s life.

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The other minor characters who do their best to exemplify what a film in the #MeToo movement should be are two of the staffers in Megyn Kelly’s crew: Lily Balin (Liv Hewson) and Julia Clarke (Bridgette Lundy-Paine).  They along with Gil Norman (Rob Delaney) serve as Kelly’s professional guidance, and eventually her support in deciding weather or not to go public. We can discern through context clues that Kelly eventually informs Balin and Clarke of what happened to her, but the only scene of Kelly confiding in anyone is when she informs Gil, the man on her team. Liv Hewson in particular is the highlight of the film. Her character seems committed to supporting Kelly in coming forward about her experience even to the detriment of her own career.  She exemplifies what the movement is and what a film about the movement should be, yet we barely see any interactions between her and Kelly.

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Maybe Bombshell lives up to the goals that Jay Roach set out for it. He took an obvious villain, and made his viewers cheer when said villain was caught and fired while delivering a few cries along the way.  In that way, it is true that Bombshell depict an incident that was an integral part of the #MeToo movement, but by denying the women in his film any of the emotional connection that the movement represents, Roach failed to create a #MeToo film.