On Thursday night, a crowd gathered at a welcome dinner held by the Telluride Film Festival. It was a full day before Senator Marco Rubio made the ridiculous accusation that Neil Armstrong biopic “First Man” was un-American because it omitted Armstrong planting the flag on the moon, but political discourse was everywhere. In one corner, the conversation shifted from some of the anticipated festival movies to a recent episode of The Daily, the New York Times’ news podcast, and why some people can’t appreciate Rachel Maddow’s reporting. A veteran distributor sitting nearby rolled his eyes. “Donald Trump is killing the movies,” he said.
Though our reality-tshow president has yet to launch a blatant cultural war against the moving image, the point resonated nonetheless: The chaotic news cycle stimulated by the lunatic at the top has eclipsed the appeal of more familiar storytelling. Headlines have become the narratives of the day. Movies that offer sophisticated perspectives on the world can’t keep up with a partisan discourse that rushes to judgement about everything in its path and keeps moving ahead.
So it went with “First Man,” Damien Chazelle’s impressionistic portrait of Armstrong’s multi-year preparation for the moon mission, and surreal experience of loneliness with the universe that he experienced on the surface. Rubio’s ignorant complaints drew further ammo from star Ryan Gosling’s claim that the moon landing was an achievement for all mankind, not only the United States, effectively giving the GOP echo chamber an excuse to ramble on further without seeing the movie. The cycle of outrage moved so rapidly that both Chazelle and Armstrong’s children issued statements defending the movie in an attempt to correct the news cycle.
They should have less to worry about once the rest of the world sees “First Man.” Anyone who did would come to the conclusion Chazelle has made the most American movie of the year, one that wields its ideals like a blunt weapon while opening them up to a mass audience.
Much of Chazelle’s “La La Land” followup often adheres to a familiar mode of sentimental storytelling. Gosling’s Armstrong copes with his worried spouse (Claire Foy) and his child while dealing with the lingering grief of his daughter’s death. The recurring cutaways to the late girl are some of the more heavy-handed moments in a movie that works best in the cockpit, where Chazelle’s extraordinary craftsmanship comes into play, but it’s all related to the same motif: Faced with traumatic personal hurdles, Armstrong pushes ahead. Gosling, who spends much of the movie with a dazed expression that suggests he’s on the moon long before the character touches down, never delivers a tell-all monologue to explain his drive — and yet it has a familiar resonance all the same. When Armstrong stands on the lunar surface and gazes back at his lander (where, yes, you can see the fucking flag), it looks like a fragile miniature against an endless black void. The lyrical imagery carries powerful resonance: an American ideal achieved against the backdrop of the great unknown.
Both ends of the political spectrum tend to celebrate this concept as a key aspect of the country’s identity — survival under impossible odds, commitment to achieving dreams rather than gazing at them from afar, and utilizing the country’s resources to make it all happen. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things,” JFK said in 1961, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” As he gears up for training in “First Man,” Gosling hears those words emanating from a television screen, and they’re more than enough for him to press ahead.
Notably, Armstrong’s saga in “First Man” was echoed in another movie playing to eager crowds at Telluride, the documentary “Free Solo.” Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi follow up “Meru” with the stunning portrait of climber Alex Honnold, the daredevil who became the first person to free solo climb Yosemite’s 3,000-foot El Capitan. A real-world thriller designed to stimulate sweaty palms, “Free Solo” follows the subdued Honnold as he talks through the prospects of death and prepares for the dire mission; then, much as Chazelle’s cameras fly to the moon alongside his subjects, the filmmakers capture Honnold’s climb in each bracing moment. He’s a fascinating psychological enigma, who shrugs off his girlfriend’s concerns and the various physical setbacks stacked against him simply because the challenge is there.
Like Armstrong, Honnold comes across as a distinctly American figure, compelled to tackle elusive challenges rather than wallowing in the reasons not to press forward. In both movies, the men engage in awkward conversations with concerned relatives and struggle to find the words to explain their motivations. This is also a distinctly American tendency: convictions lead to actions more than conversations about their purpose.
“First Man” and “Free Solo” both reflect the idea that accomplishments driven by personal determination tend to have less to do with party membership than individual will. This concept might be too subtle for a fiery pundit or clueless ideologue like Rubio, but it’s a compelling one for the very same reason — an apolitical conception of American exceptionalism manifesting at the center of partisan times. While Telluride entries like “Watergate, Or: How We Learned to Stop an Out-of-Control President” and Gary Hart biopic “The Front Runner” may engage with the current political climate in obvious terms, “First Man” and “Free Solo” provide a template for the future, when the prospects of succeeding against daunting odds transcends the toxicity of the climate to provide a universal source of pride. They don’t waste time with handwringing over belief systems. They tower over these angry, dogmatic times with a measured gaze and an underlying message: Get over the outrage and keep pressing ahead. Trump might be killing the movies, but with these galvanizing stories, the movies are fighting back.