Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Christopher Abbott, Ciarán Hinds
Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Josh Singer
It’s interesting that Neil Armstrong, one of the most celebrated names in modern history and the protagonist in the greatest feat of exploration and discovery the human race has ever achieved, had never received the cinematic treatment prior to this film. In NASA’s entire momentous campaign to put a man on the moon, the only two notable films to chronicle the astronauts’ stories are The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. The former thrived on the anxieties and uncertainties of the USA’s first steps in space exploration and the latter details the greatest disaster of their lunar expedition save only the Apollo 1 fire. This might say something about trepidation and calamity making for better drama than triumph or it might just have more to do with the famously private Armstrong not wanting his story to be dramatized during his lifetime. In either case, Chazelle and his team were faced with the same kind of dilemma James Cameron had when he made Titanic: how do you build drama and suspense out of a story to which the audience already knows the end?
For one thing, First Man sets its focus on depicting not how Armstrong got to the moon (which HBO already covered in their superb miniseries From the Earth to the Moon) but rather how it felt. Much of this accomplished through the use of the camera. Uncomfortable, shaky close-ups of people’s faces that drift in and out of focus have us feeling the palpable stress of each scene. Claustrophobic POV shots from within the crafts that our hero pilots have us feeling confined and disorientated as we, like David Bowie, experience the scary sensation of sitting in a tin can far above the world. Far from the grandiose Kubrickian wide shots that you normally get with space movies ranging from Star Wars to Gravity, First Man is made up of tight, turbulent sequences that all serve to provide the viewer with a first person perspective of space travel. When an astronaut goes to space, it isn’t the majestic, tranquil voyage we’ve been taught to expect; it is a chaotic, distressing and bloody dangerous affair (even if you know what you’re doing). To be an astronaut you must be either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid. In fact, as far as this movie is concerned, there may not necessarily be that much of a difference.
That brings us to the star of the show, the handsome and stoic Neil Armstrong as portrayed by Ryan Gosling, perhaps the best actor in all of Hollywood when it comes to playing stoic, handsome men. He signs up for the Apollo programme not long after losing his two-year-old daughter to cancer, perhaps so that he might be distracted from his grief. It isn’t entirely clear because Neil is shown to be so withdrawn in his emotional expression that not even his wife Janet (Claire Foy) can tell what he’s really thinking. She is of course grieving as well and soon makes it abundantly clear that having an uncommunicative husband risking his life every day for a cagey organisation while she’s helplessly stuck at home does little to help. We also learn that she has good reason to be worried. The Apollo programme’s mission to get an American man onto the moon proves exhaustive in its rigorous training, the crushing failures as the Soviets maintain their lead in the space race, and the grave pressure hanging on their shoulders as the testing of NASA’s machinery leads to the deaths of many of their pilots.
Gosling delivers a powerfully introverted performance as Armstrong with what is perhaps the most intensely quiet piece of acting I’ve seen since Aden Young in Rectify. Some actors tend to think that being reserved means being inexpressive and soft-spoken, but that’s not what’s happening with Gosling. It isn’t that Neil is unfeeling, it’s that he bottles up his feelings so deeply that they barely get to see the light of day. This is a man who feels the pain of his tragic loss on a profoundly personal level but who lacks maybe the confidence, the ability or perhaps even the need to express himself outwardly to those who care about him. At first this might seem like a validation of the traditional Hollywood notion that the ideal male archetype is the strong, silent, emotionally suppressed type, especially as it becomes clear that his impassiveness is a part of what enables him to keep his cool in the pilot’s seat when all the red alarms are going off and catastrophe is imminent. However the film does also show that Neil’s emotional detachment is a serious weakness in his character when it comes to forming some basic human connection with his loved ones. Not only does his grief and stoicism make him incapable of frank, open displays of vulnerability and emotion, even when it comes to explaining to his son that he might not make it back home when they send him to the moon, but Neil is also shown to be downright resentful of those who seem happy with their lives.
This nuanced character study of such a reticent figure may come as a surprise to those who expected to see a celebratory, flag-waving epic. It’s clear that wasn’t quite the movie Chazelle and Singer were interested in making not only because of their acute focus on Armstrong’s personal grief and inner-conflict but also their willingness to acknowledge the human cost of the Apollo missions. Other key figures in NASA’s team include project chief Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) and fellow astronauts Ed White (Jason Clarke), Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and, if you know your history, you’ll know that not all of them lived to see Neil take that giant leap for mankind. Meanwhile, the movie shows us, other things were happening on the ground as some of the political and social upheavals of the 1960s are given their own occasional spotlights. One features a crowd of African-Americans gathered around singer and poet Gil Scott-Heron (Leon Bridges) as he recites ‘Whitey on the Moon’, an ode to the racial inequalities that continue to plague his people while the white man is busy looking at the stars. While certainly a tremendously effective scene, it is sadly undermined by the disconnect between the themes it raises and Armstrong’s personal story, which is after all what the movie is really about and where its heart truly lies.
While the civil rights protests and the war in Vietnam continue, none of it seems to even register with Armstrong, never mind affect his actions and emotions. He’s too busy focusing on the task at hand and so, I suppose, is Chazelle. When it comes down to it everything is ultimately about getting Armstrong to the moon and anything that isn’t directly related to that one goal feels like an afterthought. The real story is taking place in the flight sequences, the Armstrong family woes that happen in between, and the climatic re-enactment of Apollo 11’s historic landing and it is these moments which make clear that First Man is more than anything else a tragic portrait of strong, stoic masculinity that nevertheless ends in triumph, or at the very least relief. So much of this movie is about putting the viewer in Neil’s shoes and it does that by fixing the camera squarely on him at almost all times, whether he’s in the cockpit of a shuttle trying to think his way through a crisis, in NASA meetings taking in the mission details, at home arguing with his wife or at some uncomfortably fancy party inadequately trying to schmooze a senator so that congress doesn’t pull the plug on the Apollo missions. The movie stays with Neil for so long in such a constant way that by the end you do feel like you’ve lived his life and understand what it took for him to get to the moon and make that momentous first step.
Where First Man shines brightest is during those flight scenes where you almost instinctually find yourself clinging to your seat for dear life. Chazelle has a great eye for visceral filmmaking, as he proved in Whiplash where he showed that a drum solo could be an intense life or death struggle, and those scenes where Neil is piloting a craft feel like being trapped on a roller coaster designed by Willy Wonka. Through painfully prolonged and turbulently erratic takes and ingenious use of sound, this movie manages to orchestrate some truly spectacular, vertigo-inducing sequences that rival the scale and dynamism of what Cuarón did with Gravity. For all its faults when it comes to portraying the historic period and some of the characters (most of whom, including Janet Armstrong, are pretty underwritten) in a constructive way, the movie deserves to be praised all the same for Chazelle’s kinetic direction and Gosling’s layered performance. The way that movie is able to build such a powerful portrait of such an introverted man with minimal reliance of dialogue couple with the physical experience of actually watching the film is worth the price of admittance.