Thoughts Upon Watching “First Man” Dir. Damien Chazelle

The look on my student’s face as I informed him that Robin Hood, the “steal from the rich and give to the poor” character didn’t exist. I only delighted more to inform him that King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were also fabrications. His look was that of shock and confusion. But the one that “blew his mind” was that George Washington never cut down the cherry tree. Then something happened – his face went from shock to almost sadness.

“I’ve been lied to my whole life.”

“No, you’ve just been demythologized.”

This encounter ran through my head as I watched “First Man,” directed by Damien Chazelle.

Those who know me, know I love Chazelle’s films. “Whiplash” is one of my personal favorites. “La La Land” isn’t bad either. But “First Man” was something of a departure form Chazelle’s musical laden filmography. It was…mature.

But I’m getting distracted.

Growing up, caricatures are the means by which we learn the world. Good people do good; bad people do bad. There are heroes and there are villains. There are those who start fires and those who run into them. Perhaps it is one of the reasons I intentionally talk to my children in “messy terms.” It’s not always black and white. There are things that are – but there’s a lot that isn’t. Children ask hard questions automatically – I will not train my children to embrace easy answers.

And yet, I find that even as an adult, it is hard for me to see people rightly. Caricaturing is still a passive hobby. We are all expert caricature artists: we live on a diet of the broad brush strokes of idioms and sound bites because they are easier to digest and pass. They may even be sugar coated, hiding the razor that slices our throat as we swallow.

Chesterton was right in his biography of Saint Francis of Assisi: he could either paint him as the king of saints, second to Christ, or as the tyrants of demons, second to the Devil. However, Chesterton selected the narrow path, the middle road: he strove to present St. Francis as he was: a man, fallible and flawed as the rest, and yet, distinctly unique for how else would history have remembered him for so long?

That is the beauty of my student’s face: the middle ground had been provided – the myth shattered. Evidence. History. Reason. And maybe a little common sense.

This was my delight in viewing “First Man.”

The myth is destroyed.

The curtain was drawn.

The pain was real.

The deaths were tallied.

The widows wept.

The fatherless hardly understood.

The risk was great, greater than I realized.

This was my delight in viewing “First Man.”

It is an excellent film. The craft is well done. The acting is engrossing. The score enthralling. The set pieces almost touchable. The editing crisp. The costuming fit. The story, captivating.

The story, captivating.

Too often we intentionally choose the caricature over the portrait because it is easier to remember: a large nose, bushy eyebrows, cartoonish breasts, squinty eyes, a smile three sixes too large. But a portrait, that’s hard to remember because every is so…believable, ordinary, realistic.

I believe people prefer a caricature simply because lying to ourselves is easier than telling the truth, and since we are expert liars already, it is only natural that we would lie to ourselves about others.

“First Man” reminds us to “see people rightly.”

As a Christian Apologist, I repeatedly encounter and meet unbelievers whom I also agree with about the non-existence of god, primarily because they aren’t worshipping the god the same god I’m not worshipping. I am often confronted with a caricature of the Christian God, not the one presented in the Bible, but an odd amalgamation of some hippie, new age, homophobic or homosexually affirming, cool, boyfriend, crazy man. And that’s not an exaggeration.

I love the demythologization of “First Man,” but I love the demythologization of Christ even more.

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