Film Review: First Man

Technically marvelous, Damien Chazelle’s poetic moon-landing saga intimately portrays the thorny headspace of quiet American hero Neil Armstrong. Ryan Gosling gives a career-best performance.
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A giant leap even for the youngest-ever Best Director victor, Damien Chazelle’s technically astonishing First Man is a poetic non-blockbuster of claustrophobic intimacy. We all know the wildly successful outcome of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, which crowned American astronaut Neil Armstrong with the immortal title “the first man to walk on the Moon.” But with an intricate script by Spotlight co-scribe Josh Singer (an adaptation of James R. Hansen’s 2005 biography), Chazelle journeys into the largely unknown—not only through the dark corridors of the universe but also the private headspace of a quiet, resolute character, driven by purpose and challenged by personal demons in equal measure.

In that, the life story of Armstrong is not entirely a thematic departure for Chazelle, even if it might seem so on the heels of his music-driven wonders Whiplash and La La Land. His First Man also delves into an obsessive kind of human determination, but one light years ahead in maturity and consequence from those that fuel his previous protagonists. And music still plays an important part: La La Land composer Justin Hurwitz’s terrific score is both melancholic and unsettlingly hypnotic, informing the character study at the heart of First Man.

The motion sickness and dyspnea pervading the film kicks in early, in a panic-inducing opening sequence that follows Armstrong (Ryan Gosling, in his most complex and understated performance yet) on a test flight that near-fatally malfunctions as it teeters in the atmosphere. Here, Chazelle sets the tone from the get-go: high stakes that are, despite the vast subject matter, as minimalist as possible. His unadorned approach continues when Neil and his supportive wife Janet (a steely Claire Foy, never a sidelined-spouse trope) lose their three-year-old daughter Karen to a brain tumor. As he does throughout, the filmmaker treats this heartbreaking episode with remarkable soberness, letting the audience mine the emotion out of extreme close-ups (a recurring artistic choice), the gray hospital and the fleeting funeral scene.

“It would be unreasonable to assume that it will have no effect,” Neil says, matter-of-factly, when asked about the possible professional ramifications of his daughter’s passing as part of his application to NASA’s Gemini program in the mid-’60s. He gets the job nonetheless and moves his family from Southern California to Houston—a life-defining change we never forget to be a result of the Armstrongs’ shared grief. They settle into their new neighborhood and make friends, the ill-fated astronaut Edward Higgins White (Jason Clarke) and his lively wife Pat (Olivia Hamilton) among them. Aided by a solid supporting cast (including the likes of Kyle Chandler, Pablo Schreiber and Christopher Abbott) and the craftsmanship of his repeat collaborators—cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who shot First Man on a combination of grainy 16mm, textured 35mm and expansive IMAX, and editor Tom Cross—Chazelle portrays the family’s subsequent years in Texas. Through effective crosscutting, we witness the deepening of Pat and Janet’s friendship, as well as the evolving camaraderie of the astronauts. Meanwhile, the nightmarish claustrophobia of the costly, sometimes fatal space missions that paved the way for the success of Apollo 11 are detailed. You might have seen the likes of The Right Stuff or Gravity, but it’s unlikely that you have ever felt more like you're inside an airless, miniscule and rattling spacecraft, extremely vulnerable to the hostile conditions that surround it. Similarly, the sweaty Houston mission control center at the heart of Apollo 13’s triumphant finale feels grubbier and more suffocating here.

Unsurprisingly, the historic Moon landing that defined a generation before the nation lost its interest in the space program is First Man’s crowning achievement. With smart use of sound—and sometimes, lack of sound, like during the seconds that follow Armstrong opening his spacecraft’s door and taking his famous “small step”—the film remains deeply immersive, human and personal. Kudos to Singer, for wives and families never get discarded and instead receive the time and respect they deserve. In one remarkable scene, Janet bravely demands straightforwardness from Neil. She is not the clichéd wife who asks him to stay home with his family. “Tell your kids you might not come back,” she bluntly tells him instead.

Needless to say, forget the fake controversy around the lack of an American flag in the Moon-landing scene—the idea of it is unambiguously there, along with the national pride that’s ingrained in the DNA of First Man at every turn. Consistent with Chazelle’s narrative subtlety, patriotism plays out quietly in the background, just like the Cold War with Russia, the political protests that erupted around the country and other historical markers of the time. With First Man, Chazelle aims much higher than jingoistic cheers. What he lands on is a deeply human story of a bruised family man,who buries his own sorrow in outer space while uniting the world around a shared hunger for advancement beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.