First Man | Damien Chazelle | October 12th, 2018
Realistic films about space travel are far and few between, even if the story is based on real events (and in this case James R. Hansen’s biography). The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 are Hollywood adaptations that are mostly based in reality, but they still have a certain shine about them. Damien Chazelle, coming off the success of Whiplash and La La Land, offers up a fairly straightforward, gritty, and personal account of Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon.
Everyone knows the famous line that Armstrong gave during his first steps on our nearest celestial body. Chazelle’s film documents the triumphs, tragedies and personal struggle that ultimately lead Armstrong to board the fateful Apollo 11 rocket. Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong with his now almost signature brooding. Gosling’s roles in Drive and Blade Runner 2049 feel very in sync with how he goes about playing Neil Armstrong. Gosling’s quiet performance is a great portrayal of a man who’s deathly afraid of dealing with his emotions.
A death early on in the film becomes a turning point in Neil’s life. Emotionally stunting him. For the rest of the film, we see Neil Armstrong on the screen before us, but we don’t truly get to fully know him. His wife Janet, played by The Crown‘s Claire Foy, gets visibly frustrated by his constant deterrence to expressing emotion or communicating. During the course of First Man, I unfortunately started feeling the same.
Neil is a genius engineer and somewhat of a daredevil, but not a showy one in the least. During the course of the film, he willingly puts himself in harm’s way. His inability to relate to other people begins to give him a unique calm resolve under insanely dangerous circumstances. During one of the early Gemini missions, Neil and his co-pilot David Scott are caught in a never-ending spin on the upper atmosphere of Earth. It’s no secret that Neil will survive this, but to see how the film portrays him under stress is nothing short of amazing. We still don’t know much about him personally, but his lack of fear speaks volumes.
During the early half of First Man, we dive into the early days of NASA. After a thrilling opening sequence of Neil piloting a plane in free fall, he interviews to be part of the new NASA Gemini team, comprised of Kyle Chandler, Ethan Embry, Corey Stoll and Jason Clarke. They need to solve a number of tasks in practice rocket tests around Earth’s orbit before they can start preparing to plan their mission to the Moon, and with the Russians beating NASA’s space program at almost every step, the pressure’s on. Stoll plays a rather surly version of Buzz Aldrin, with Neil often correcting Aldrin’s unprofessional attitude. The rest of the cast does a fine job with the script they’re given, but they’re more just around to give Neil good or bad news throughout the film.
The technical prowess in First Man almost makes up for the narrative shortcomings. The Gemini and Apollo rocket sequences are absolutely terrifying, yet exhilarating. The space capsules sound and feel like they could break apart at any moment. The sound design and Linus Sandgren’s cinematography (also a returning La La Land collaborator) makes you feel like you’re right in the cockpit with them. Chazelle decides to use a lot of close-up and handheld shots, giving a more realistic and gritty look to the entire film. Sometimes, he relies on that filming style a bit too much. It’s an odd choice, since a lot of close-up shots on Gosling’s face would better be utilized if he actually showed some type of emotion. If highlighting Neil’s detachment via close cinematography was the goal, then mission accomplished.
Claire Foy is given a bit more to work with as Janet Armstrong. You feel for her character here. She is married to an emotionally closed-off man, while raising two children, sometimes by herself. Although the script doesn’t give her character too much to do, she doesn’t play the worried ’60s housewife here. She’s fierce and forceful, whether she’s trying to be there for Neil or vehemently telling him to interact with his children.
During the Gemini missions, Neil experiences more pain and tragedy but uses that to dive even more intensely into his work. By the time of the Apollo 11 mission, you start to believe that he might be the only person capable of keeping calm during this historic and dangerous mission. He holds everything in so well, but to a fault towards everyone else around him. The scenes on the moon were filmed with IMAX cameras, and are spectacular. Although the IMAX footage looks great, I do wish that there were more scenes filmed with the IMAX cameras. When the film finally gets to the titular mission, the payoff is ALMOST worth the journey. You get a sense of what Neil has truly lost and gone through to get to this moment. The beauty of the moon’s surface is a great achievement and it truly feels like you’re there.
Overall, the story of Neil Armstrong is told here without sensationalism or American bombast. There’s no celebratory or momentous feeling to the missions, which ultimately feels real. If you were being sent out to the moon in what sounds and looks as flimsy as a tin can, celebrating would be the last thing on your mind. First Man shows how far a man can go to avoid his emotions. Neil Armstrong is both an American and an international hero, without a doubt. That being said, First Man doesn’t hide the detached temperament Neil had to exhibit in order to keep the missions going – cold, dark, damaged, and distant. It describes the moon, and the type of man needed to get there.