This article contains First Man spoilers.
It sits there in the distance, planted and proud. But it’s only once you’ve seen the haunting ending of Damien Chazelle’s First Man that it becomes apparent how manufactured the American flag “controversy” really is. After all, the flag is obviously visible following Neil Armstrong’s one small step into moon dust, just as it is throughout the stoic astronaut’s life, from the movie’s beginning with his son solemnly raising it outside their house, to it adorning the room at the end where Gosling’s newly minted national hero and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) watch a broadcast echoing the immortal words of President John F. Kennedy about American aspiration.
However, on the moon, the flag isn’t the point of the picture. And now that the barrier of spoilers has dropped, we can speak plainly as to why. While Gosling talked in the abstract about “human achievement” last month, what he means specifically is not the national glory of success, but the personal anguish of fulfilling your individual dream. Throughout First Man, the quiet and dignified Armstrong has yearned but never vocalized his deep desire to become the man in the moon. And yet, once he is on that barren rock, everything he’s lost to get there intermingles and then overwhelms the emotions of this intensely personal man.
Armstrong’s first step, a moment that will reverberate in human history as long as we remember our history, is meticulously recreated in First Man, complete with vocal inflections. Yet the real ending is what happens after those ghostly footsteps are left permanently imprinted on moonrock. The music—simultaneously triumphant in its otherworldly use of the theremin instrument and melancholic in its aural weeping—echoes back to the first time we heard the theme: It is the piece of music Justin Hurwitz wrote for Neil Armstrong as he watched helplessly as his daughter Karen (Lucy Stafford) faded away. It plays again with a more notably alien and reflective touch here, but it still illuminates where Armstrong’s mind is, even before his solar-visor is raised.
The single time Armstrong is depicted as lifting his visor and viewing the moon with his own eyes is when he has come to say goodbye. Goodbye to his passion, goodbye to his veritable mania for this orbital object, and goodbye to the losses he’s left behind to get here. Goodbye to Karen. He drops Karen’s bracelet, a piece of child’s jewelry he gave his daughter when she was sick, and kept in his study when it came time to bury her, into a ravine.
We did not see the placement of the flag, because the placement of the bracelet is so much more profound in the story Damien Chazelle is telling. Perhaps more than any of his movies before this, including the Oscar winning Whiplash and La La Land, First Man surmises that human achievement comes at a cost of great suffering. And for buttoned up Neil, that suffering amounts to an ocean of pain whose horizon is only made clear when Karen’s bracelet vanishes along the dark side of the moon.
It is in this moment, where we come to understand all of the guilt and shame that has driven Neil, as much as the fury. This is not in terms of a discernable shame that he could have done something more to save his daughter, but in the sense that he couldn’t figure out how to… and then compartmentalized that helplessness away, like how one places a bracelet in a desk. This is a through-line in the film, albeit one that is a little more stealthily threaded than Neil’s inability to speak with his wife Janet (a fantastic Claire Foy) and sons about the dangers of space travel.
At the beginning of the film, Neil is denied by the U.S. Navy he was currently flying for the possibility of taking time off to seek out a specialist for Karen’s brain tumor. It is certain that no medical procedure, especially in the early 1960s, would have been able to spare her, but that inability to even fully try implicitly haunts Neil all the way to the moon. He never speaks her name again in the picture after she dies, but the visible way in which Neil is a man who can figure out the technical challenges of stopping the Gemini 8 space capsule from spinning to dizzying degrees—or how to endure the technical malfunctions of an X-15 test flight—suggests a man whose life is built on a foundation of practical problem-solving.
When the problem cannot be solved, be it both his daughter’s literal tumor or the more emotional pain her death creates, there is nothing to fill that void but his work and his ambition. The two are thus quietly interlinked throughout the rest of the movie. During a funeral for a pair of fellow astronauts, Armstrong is haunted by visions of the child he will not name. His wife knows that this is the specter possessing his soul, for she asks Ed White (Jason Clarke) if Neil has ever mentioned Karen. The answer is obviously no, but that is the difference between Neil’s ability to attend four funerals in a year at Edwards Air Force Base and his complete breakdown years later where he abandons his own wife at a memorial.
In the following scene, Ed finds Neil standing alone staring at the moon. In Neil’s mind, Karen and the moon have become synonymous: two spirits that drive him. It is possible he is losing himself as a distraction in his desire to be the one who crosses its surface first, but it is more likely he connects them because one is a problem he knows he can defeat, and the other is one whose lack of answers will be with him for the rest of his life. He’ll make the moon his own because he cannot reconcile Karen’s memory with her absence. It’s why he flatly ignores Buzz’s boasts of taking his wife’s jewelry to the moon in order to make it more valuable. Neil of course carries jewelry up there, but not to bring back as a souvenir; he leaves it as a monument of what he’s lost and gained.
This returns to a theme in all four of Chazelle’s films. Despite only being 33-years-old, Chazelle has emerged as one of the most talented and distinct voices of modern Hollywood. Each of his films, primarily his most recent three, encompass the agony and ecstasy of achievement.
In Whiplash, Miles Teller’s Andrew sacrifices everything to pursue his obsession with becoming a master of jazz drumming. The pain is much more overt since his teacher at a fictional stand-in for Julliard, J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher, puts him through hell and drives him to the point of literal self-destruction: Andrew winds up in a car crash while running toward Fletcher’s stage, searching for an approval that will never come. But it is still Andrew’s internalized drive that compels him to ruin relationships, including a budding romance with a new girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) and a straining closeness with his father (Paul Reiser). Nevertheless, Andrew persists even after the point of professional sabotage on Fletcher’s part, because achievement is everything, particularly when it’s the only thing left.
La La Land took a more nuanced study of this as the failed romance became center stage for a nostalgic musical starring Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian and Emma Stone’s Mia. The pair are both driven by creative desires—Sebastian wishes to create an elite jazz club that harkens back to what he perceives to be the genre’s golden age and Mia wishes to become a movie star like those from yesteryear she’s idolized since childhood—and that mutual longing pulls them both together and then apart. Ultimately, the film embraces the artifice of storytelling by reviving one of cinema’s oldest and most revered fantasies, the musical, but marries it to the bittersweetness of reality.
The ending of La La Land is about the comfort and necessity of our fantasies, be they in movies or our own personal lives, as encompassed by a lush dream sequence shared by a briefly reunited Mia and Sebastian. It is of the life they could’ve had, yet reluctantly gave up for their more complicated, messier realities. They achieved their dreams and lost each other in the process, still the emotion of what they left behind lingers.
First Man cements this thematic anguish and zeal, which connects all the films. More acutely and profoundly, Neil Armstrong reaches for his own achievement, one of a grounded reality that’s as solid as the rockets from which he’ll literally rise above the clouds. Whereas Mia and Sebastian dance among a bejeweled sky, Armstrong soars through it without a sense of metaphor or fantasy. Still, that intangible pain of what hides in his mind remains. It is of a grief that compels him as relentlessly as his desire, and a sense of loss that he cannot get his arms around as well as Mia and Sebastian do each other in a waltz. There is no artifice in him letting go of Karen’s bracelet on the moon, only the sense of a man accepting a paid price for a dream achieved, and whose receipt is confided in the solitary company of one. But at last, when he gets home, he is able to connect with a wife he has long kept at arm’s length, even if the technical details of his achievement (like a decompression chamber’s glass) still stands between them.
It’s a sagacious sendoff that’s greater than any phony complaints of jingoistic slight. It also plants a flag in the cinematic landscape, marking Chazelle as one of the greats of his generation.