Ryan Gosling has long been a master of stoic characters, and his recent portrayal of Neil Armstrong in the film First Man brings that quiet, serious tone to an informative space. An accurate and detailed account of the monumental first moon landing, the film also serves as a crystal-clear metaphor for depression and grief.
The story is built around the loss of Armstrong’s daughter, and how he carried the sadness from her death, and several subsequent deaths of fellow astronauts at NASA. It would be presumptuous to say that Academy Award-winning screenwriter Josh Singer structured this film intentionally to address mental health. I can’t interview him. But there is reason to believe there is some intention there. Additionally, Singer does have a demonstrated skill for telling true stories in a format that addresses larger philosophies.
His Oscar script for the 2016 Best Picture winning Spotlight was profoundly tight and focused on its portrayal of the Boston Globe’s excavation of the Catholic Church sexual harassment epidemic. The script had no unnecessary asides or drama. It focused on the facts, and the movements made by a group of individuals to achieve something noteworthy. This slim, compact approach brilliantly parallels the writing style that journalists live and die by. The Globe’s writers only had room for facts, and the most important facts, and so, that’s how Singer treated the script.
With First Man, the writer had an opportunity to do something dangerous in glorifying a seemingly well-known event, and riddling it with pro-American nostalgia. Singer based the film on the book by James R. Hansen, and from that content sculpted a story that exemplifies how impossible true grief is to run from.
There’s a brilliant moment where Armstrong is standing in his backyard looking up at the night sky. His friend and fellow astronaut Ed White (played by Jason Clarke) walks out to keep him company. Armstrong turns him away, saying something along the lines of, If I wanted to talk to someone, I wouldn’t have come and stood out here alone.
That line encapsulates what it means to be truly broken from yourself and reality. Anyone who has lost someone close to them knows this need to be alone, and to separate from pep talks, friends and families. Sometimes life hurts so bad that you feel the need to get as far away as possible. That mental reality makes a lot of sense as a starting point for the first person to get in a metal tube blast off towards the moon.
The process and difficulty of dealing with these emotions—the personal crashes, the meltdowns, the relentless negativity—are all represented in Armstrong’s training, the missions leading up to the launch, and his troubles staying close to his family. He had NASA and rockets, while a lot of people go through this same sort of escapism with things like work, alcohol, religion, and so on.
The thread of Armstrong’s depression gave his moments alone on the moon towards the end of the film a brilliant power. It felt like he made it somewhere quiet and secluded enough for his sadness to quiet down. This moment of peace and tranquility marks the first sign of Armstrong’s acceptance of his grief, and we see this with a symbolic act of him taking out and leaving behind a bracelet his daughter used to wear.
For those who haven’t caught it, there are many more reasons behind this one metaphor of depression to catch the film. Damien Chazelle continues to expand and improve on his eclectic directorial resume. The 1960’s grain, the acting, and all of the rockets and launches bring artistic, cinematic excitement to this deeply human, relatable story.