There’s something undeniably alluring about space. The way it feels both intimately close and desperately far; in range of our eyes, yet out from our hands. To quest beyond our atmosphere, to journey into the deep black, to discover what lies beyond is not too foreign an idea as explorers from all eras in human history have sought to answer the questions of what’s above, what’s below, and what’s beyond. In the midst of the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States, President John F. Kennedy, in a stirring speech at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas, in September 1962, set forth the challenge for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to land a man on the moon. Nearly seven years later, Neil Armstrong, along with Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. and Michael Collins, boarded the Apollo 11, rode into space, and traveled toward the moon, seeking to make that challenge a reality. This journey made legends of all involved. The landing on the moon was and still is an indelible symbol of what ingenuity and determination may accomplish when the will is strong. Inspired by the James R. Hansen book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, director Damien Chazelle (La La Land/Whiplash) sheds all pretense as he reteams with Ryan Gosling (La La Land) to explore Neil Armstrong, the man, not the legend, who took the infamous first step on the moon.
In the time before Neil Armstrong (Gosling) was an aeronautic legend, he was an engineer, a test pilot, and, most importantly, a family man. Living a quiet life with wife Janet (Claire Foy), son Erik (Gavin Warren/Luke Winters) and daughter Karen (Lucy Stafford), Neil tests NASA equipment that might one day go into the space program. However, when tragedy befalls the Armstrong family and Neil’s professional options shift, he applies for NASA’s astronaut program in hopes of joining the team developing the eventual mission to the moon. No matter the personal successes or professional triumphs, the specter of loss hangs over every choice Neil makes, inadvertently instilling within the already stoic man a desire to cast off the shackles of our planet in hopes that a new perspective will provide peace.
Considering the critical and popular reaction to his last two projects, there should be little doubt that whatever project Chazelle develops will be of the highest caliber and First Man is no exception. Using a directorial technique which offers a documentary-esque feel to the whole of the film, Chazelle manages to immerse the audience in the story from the start. As the Universal and Dreamworks logos go past – should be no surprise that avid history buff Steven Spielberg executive produced – a low growl becomes louder and louder until Neil’s helmeted face fills the screen. With fast cut after fast cut, the camera changes POV to show what Neil sees, Neil himself, and the outside of his flight craft until the audience is almost as dizzy as Neil must’ve been as he breaks through the atmosphere before plummeting back to Earth. In this extended sequence, two things become crystal clear: what you’re about to experience is unlike anything audiences have seen since 2017’s Dunkirk and Neil Armstrong is a man of steel nerve. How Chazelle carries this style of direction forward is truly a thing of beauty – making the camera less of a fixed point and more of a fly on the wall – capturing the moments as they happen, then letting them go. Considering the characterization of Neil is both as brave astronaut and reserved gentleman, utilizing such a free flowing style frequently feels as though the audience is peering in at something private. This becomes especially important as First Man digs into the various tragedies, the personal losses, which surround Neil and serve as motivation to persevere. Of the moments within First Man that will evoke the most complex reaction is that of Neil and Buzz (Corey Stoll) reaching the moon. As they open the EVA door, the air rushes out, the camera following as though sucked out. As the camera stops, offering a view of the moon, all sound expires and we see the whole of the moon reflected back within Neil’s helmet. Constructed with returning cinematographer Linus Sandgren (La La Land), this scene is simultaneously full of incredible wonder and heartbreaking isolation.
Given the title and the subject matter, it’s fairly safe for audiences to assume First Man centers on the Apollo 11 mission that created the legend of Neil Armstrong. Impressively, rather than a rallying cry toward American ingenuity, First Man’s script, adapted by screenwriter Josh Singer (The Post), is far more reserved. Tracking Neil’s life from mid-1961 until the end of the mission in July 1969, First Man abandons the mythos to explore the man. This is where the cast, in particular, shines. With a story less intent on building up a legend, the whole of the cast – Gosling, Foy, Kyle Chandler, Ciarán Hinds, Stoll, Lukas Haas, Patrick Fugit, Jason Clarke, and more – are able to focus on the humanity of the journey and the unrealized cost of trying to endeavor something never before accomplished. While none deliver career-defining performances, they each convey all the joy, pain, comradery, and isolation that general audiences may not realize the crew and their families endured with each test, each trial, and each attempt to make real Kennedy’s declaration.
The greatest problem First Man suffers from is terrible PR. Due to one comment, the general public assumes that Chazelle’s First Man is unpatriotic dreck resulting from a belief that the American flag isn’t planted into the moon. To that there’s only one thing to say: see the film. Context is key and what Chazelle and company create is a moment of absolute contradiction except in its depiction of the arrival on the moon by the United States. While a U.S. victory, that moment in history was celebrated the world over as the achievement it was – a moment declaring that no matter what pain, what loss we endure, our struggles can result in greatness through perseverance. Chazelle’s film may not live up to the patriotic standards of the ill-informed, but for those who experience it, for those who dare to glimpse into the real life of Neil Armstrong, they’ll see that he’s a not a legend, but a man more real than we can imagine.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.