Though not the awe-inspiring adventure that some might hope for or expect from a film about Neil Armstrong stepping out onto the moon (an historical event that took a surprisingly long time to receive an adaptation), director Damian Chazelle turns Armstrong’s life into something of an odyssey and charts the eight-year course from the early days of NASA’s missions through to its inevitable success.
First Man delves very little into the deeper historical beats of NASA’s mission itself and instead puts its focus mostly on Armstrong’s personal life. Bryan Singer’s screenplay adapts James R. Hansen’s First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, and stars Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy as a married couple who, in the first act, tragically lose their firstborn child to a tumor. This is the pivotal moment in the early stages of the film, which is telling. It straps us in for a very human tale of loss and recovery, though if the film is anything to go by then it seems Armstrong never really recovered at all.
From here we chart the eight-year journey to the moon as NASA deploys the Gemini and, eventually, the Apollo missions. Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Kyle Chandler, Christopher Abbott, and Patrick Fugit play astronauts Ed White, Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell, Deke Slayton, David Scott, and Ellliot See, who all matter in middling degrees to the overarching story. This is Gosling’s film, but it’s equally as much Chazelle’s film. It’s a technically dazzling picture with some astounding sequences of roller coaster-ride angles paired with inspiring sound design emphasizing the biggest and smallest of noises to make for a truly immersive experience.
Armstrong’s home life however is not nearly as exhilarating as his work life. Rather he’s shut himself off from his family almost entirely. He gives his remaining children little time or affection, and fails to support his wife over the course of a number of years. We see him truly emotional at the reception following his daughter’s funeral early in the film, in a scene of immense power thanks to Gosling’s incredible work, but it’s the last time he does so apart from various moments of subdued anger and frustration. His agony and his inability to heal is heightened to such an extent that it seems mostly as though he’s not even interesting in reaching the moon at all. Contrasting with Jim Lovell’s undying motivation in 1995’s Apollo 13, landing on the moon seems only to be something to occupy Armstrong’s time and focus his energies on more than anything else.
If viewers are looking to experience something inspirational or adventurous in Chazelle’s science-fiction drama, then they may be left wanting. This is instead a meditation on loss and love, the effect that one has on the other more-so than an exploration of the capacity for humans to go further than we’ve ever been. Looking back on Chazelle’s other, seemingly disconnected work, it’s easier to expect that this would always be a more introspective tale. It shares its thematic tug of war between career and family with La La Land, yet it comes at it from a different, perhaps more mature angle. Just like with La La Land and even Whiplash, First Man is about characters with larger-than-life ambitions, and what they’re willing to sacrifice for them. The difference here is that Armstrong seems far less in love with his ultimate goal than those other protagonists. What First Man might lack in grand, larger-than-life ideologies it makes up for with uncomfortable drama brimming with uncertainty both inside and outside the rocket.
Foy plays Janet, Armstrong’s wife who’s not at all living the stable, domestic life she had hoped she would. As is often the case in films of this kind, and particularly here where it can’t truly be helped when detailing historical events, the female characters tend to be at the mercy of the male lead’s story arc. In this sense, First Man maybe comes a few years too late especially when considering that it arrives in the aftermath of the wonderful 2016 space program drama Hidden Figures. A negative though maybe justifiable perspective on the film might be one that suggests First Man is a film preoccupied with the socially inept machismo of an American man who leaves the real work to a wife who has the thankless job of battening down the hatches to keep her family from imploding. For those looking to criticize the film for this however, it should only come after a fair appraisal of what can only be regarded as a technical and, for the most part, narrative triumph from Chazelle.
It’s only mostly a narrative success because of its lengthiness and the at times meandering pace through the mid-section of the film. Cutting back and forth between home and life on the space program sometimes becomes a blur of loosely connected vignettes, and it takes a moment of genuine shock in the well-cataloged explosion of Apollo 1 during its test run to snap things out of a mild lethargy. Again, Chazelle, his cinematographer Linus Sandgren, and editor Tom Cross showcase a wealth of talent in a sequence of excruciating terror. The scene comes and goes in a matter of seconds, but its final, silent shot resonates for the remainder of the story.
First Man is a third consecutive success for Chazelle, who at just 33 years of age has well and truly declared himself as one of the top directors working today. Ryan Gosling yet again offers a rousing, intense performance, and the story of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon is, in the end, a rewarding tale of a man who has to, in the end, leave everything behind in order to find peace and closure in the wake of terrible tragedy, at the expense of the people that love him.
Film ’89 Verdict – 8/10
First Man is on general release now.