If you ever wanted to feel firsthand what it was like to fly in one of the first rockets sent to infinity and beyond, First Man is the movie to see. Nauseating flashes of light and a hurricane of movement orchestrate these inaugural flights, which not only birth a new appreciation for these explorers, but also remind us of the romance of space as an uncharted frontier. Unlike other films of its kind, including Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff, director Damien Chazelle’s most mechanically impressive, but emotionally stunted production to date presents the early lunar expeditions as more of a scary and grueling series of tasks, rather than a grand one.
The best parts of the movie chronicle NASA’s Gemini program and eventual Apollo missions, the trial-and-error process which claimed several lives, and ate up millions of taxpayer dollars – Chazelle’s constant rehashing of these facts is another deviation from the genre. Laid on top of that is the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), the man now known as the first to walk on the moon.
With Armstrong, First Man’s biggest challenge comes not in simulating the trapping, suffocating environment and intricate nature of space travel – on three occasions does Chazelle create the horrifyingly intimate illusion – but rather in presenting the inner emotions of a man who infamously never appeared to have any. Neil spits hard facts and opinions at press conferences while his fellow astronauts bathe in the celebrity that comes with being “the first.”
Showcasing several harrowing explosions and close calls – the opening sequence sees Armstrong in a plane forced to save himself from being tossed out of the atmosphere – Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer (whose resume in historical dramas includes Spotlight and last year’s The Post) paint astronauts as men with either immense, unbreakable bravery or as men with a death wish.
For Neil, it seems like a combination of the two: seeking a distraction, he signed up for Gemini after the passing of his two-year-old daughter, Karen, an event which lends heavily to the emotional distance felt between him and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy). Though both grieve, they at no point seem in sync in their sorrow. Compared to La La Land, the turmoils of this relationship are dimensionless and disappointingly dispassionate; The Crown star Foy making hardly any impact on us or Neil with little to offer other than impatience at his silent anguish.
That level of emotional constipation Gosling displays is shared by most of the other astronauts working on the project; it seems Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), with his inconsiderate remarks and the showmanship he displays in front of the press, is the exception. The stress the others experience, however, is overbearing, completely submerging their visible feeling. As the movie unfolds, funerals become less mournful, more common, and thus, more professional.
Stunningly shot on IMAX cameras, Chazelle makes these men’s prize worthy of their suffering. The vastness of space, and the excitement of its initial discovery are presented, demonstrated and reenacted beautifully, reminding us of a time when these kinds of questions were still being asked and the joy that was had in answering them.
The Academy Award-winning director also does a good job in showing that there was a lot more going on at the time other than the Space Race. A lot of anger is directed towards NASA – which is portrayed as a far less established entity than it is now – given that the mission to beat Russia to the moon felt like a senselessly expensive distraction from the racial and social discrepancies plaguing the country.
Though First Man struggles to be a historical melodrama, with the sentimentality surrounding Armstrong’s familial struggles and tragedies suggesting a lack of faith in his character (the magnitude of the finale on the moon is spoiled by an out-of-place allusion to Karen), it’s the technology that saves the film. Clips of John F. Kennedy vowing to send astronauts to the moon “not because it is easy, but because it is hard” are interwoven near the end as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins prepare to make his promise run true nearly six years after his death. The film’s gift is that the heroics of these men are amplified by the horrific dangers it meticulously crafts onscreen, which verified that it was, just as Kennedy had said it was going to be, “hard.”
First Man hardly comes close to capturing the overwhelming triumph behind Neil Armstrong’s lunar explorations, though the journey to get there is technologically masterful.