First Man isn’t aimed to be a crowd-pleasing celebration of American ingenuity like Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff. Chazelle’s film is tense and gritty; a claustrophobic, in-your-face, thrilling mad dash to history, while also acting as a cerebral study in carrying grief.
Go ahead and get all worked up over the American flag controversy that ignited like a brush fire by the very junior Senator in Florida, Marc Rubio. The mere fact that the flag does appear at the end of the film says this was an exercise in politics over pragmatism. Damien Chazelle’s third feature film is unlike any space race entertainment you’ve ever seen. His film is a tense, gritty, claustrophobic, and an in-your-face firsthand account of Neil Armstrong’s reluctant ascension to American hero and the country’s first reality television star; First Man has all the right stuff.
Based on a firsthand account of the man himself, Neil Armstrong, and based on the book by James R. Hansen (Read his Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: The Inside Story of the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster, just an impeccable work); First Man focuses on the 8-year window from 1961-1969, NASA’s race to have America be the first to step foot on the moon. The film starts with Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) flying North American X-15 supersonic aircraft then interviewing to be a part of the space program after he and his wife Janet (The Crown’s Claire Foy) still mourn the loss of their 3-year old daughter in 1962.
Armstrong was a reluctant hero thrust into the spotlight when NASA used television to propel its mission to garner favor from the American public, so they knew their tax dollars weren’t going to waste. Janet comments to a neighbor, “I married Neil because I wanted a normal life.” Soon the Armstrong’s live in fear of Neil’s dangerous day-in and day-out work life and are slowly cracking at the insurmountable pressure from the weight of what is upon them.
Soon we are introduced to a wide net of recognizable character actors from film and television (and from years past) that are there initially, but not all will be next to Armstrong by the end. They are embarking on a mission with no real blueprint, experience, or proven training. There is no track record or guideline for what they are trying to accomplish. They are starting something from the ground up and being asked to be shot into space in what are essentially souped-up and polished tin cans for the country’s good while hoping they somehow make it back into the Earth’s atmosphere. Armstrong’s obsession with not just completing the mission, but enduring it, causes his superiors to ask him about the risks he is taking and at what cost? He replies, “At what cost? It’s a little late for that, isn’t it, sir?”
The script from Academy Award-winning screenwriter Josh Springer (Spotlight) takes the outstanding source material, and strips down the lore depicted on television and read about in newspapers. The film demonstrates how the space race was, essentially, America’s first obsession with reality television. NASA is using the medium to justify using American tax dollars to beat the Soviets to space. Neal Armstrong is reluctantly thrown into the spotlight and Americans’ consciousness whether he likes it or not. He knows just how dangerous the mission is and continues watching his friends and colleagues perish in numerous failures. The viewer must wonder what is driving him? If not for fame, is he doing it to make history? For his country? As a way to bury himself in his work to deal with the grief of a lost child or to get one last stop closer to her?
Damien Chazelle has a meticulous eye for details and has crafted what is essentially a period drama that takes you to another time and place. A man who made a name for himself with his freshman film about obsession in Whiplash, after three films, he clearly is obsessive with every frame. His film depicts grounded realism events as they happened. He is not interested in showing constant wide-angle shots of the vast openness of space with Apollo 11 floating around the earth. He wants you in the cockpit with every mission, every flight, and to see what the astronauts see through a small window no more than a handful of inches around. You get a feel for the all-hands-on-deck, fly by the seat of your pants approach.
For all the positive aspects of First Man, there are some small caveats. Some of the film’s musical score is very similar or almost lifted from Chazelle’s La La Land, so much so when Armstrong tossed Buzz Aldrin a cassette to play in the shuttle, I thought it was going to be the La La’s soundtrack (very reminiscent of when Aaron Sorkin rehashes lines from The American President in The West Wing). While some of the space scenes can be underwhelming and understated, First Man finally lands on solid footing with its harrowing Eagle landing sequence, which only then shows the full grandeur of the mission’s scope as it hovers over endless canyons and craters on the moon. The scene sums up just how far they have really come and settles into more cerebral, more complex, more thoughtful themes with deeper hidden meanings than the standard, straightforward approach.
The lead performances drive the film’s central motivations, with Ryan Gosling’s Armstrong not portrayed as a stoic John Wayne American hero. While he doesn’t say much, Gosling has the ability to communicate everything you need to know with a single look as he wears his emotions on his sleeve, and slowly all the nerves come to the surface. It’s the finest performance of Gosling’s career. His subtly damaged soul is matched by Claire Foy’s electric and even sometimes volcanic performance as a wife who is always preparing to grieve her husband’s potential demise. In one of the film’s best scenes, Foy’s Janet demands her husband tell their kids there are greater odds he is not coming back than portrayed on American televisions.
First Man isn’t intended to be a crowd-pleasing celebration of American ingenuity like Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff. It’s not even a straightforward chronicling of the efforts in the race to space, such as in HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon. Chazelle’s film is tense and gritty, a claustrophobic, in-your-face, thrilling mad dash to history while also acting as a cerebral study in carrying grief. First Man has become the definitive film on the race to space with its first-hand account of the man who lived it. It’s one of the finest films of the year.