First Man exists in a genre that’s not for lightweights. Spaceflight is not for the weak of heart and mind. Damien Chazelle must know it, he’s catalogued Neil Armstrong’s famous Moon landing in a stunning biopic that is at once interstellar and interpersonal. Ryan Gosling stars, restrained as Armstrong, doing a lot of acting to not to show very much emotion. Around his character and one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments, a family drama unfolds.
Shot on film with a series of increasingly high-powered IMAX cameras, Chazelle finds a remarkable visual progression. The film begins as a human interest story shot with the grain of a handheld camera and ends with an alien feeling Moon landing blown out to the highest resolution. It is very much a spaceflight film grounded in reality.
The thing about astronauts is that while their mission may be romantic, they are generally dissociative realists. The type of person that wants to leave Earth for the Moon by way of tin cans often has an asocial attitude. This marks a great difficulty in telling a human drama. Gosling only allows emotion for the people around him: his daughter who died too young from a brain tumor and his close friends who burn up in a test flight fire. His grief is a reminder of the human beneath the shell, the kind who must escape the planet.
It is not easy for his family either. An adeptly cast Claire Foy plays Neil’s wife, Janet, putting on a Midwestern twang sure to endear everyone to her. She is the human core of the story, not Neil, or anyone else. First Man, like Chazelle’s Whiplash and La La Land before it, may be about a single man’s journey to complete his ambitions, but it is more careful to examine the fallout. Sat around the dining table, in one painful and beautifully shot sequence, Neil informs his boys of the possibility they may never come back, although their crew have every intention to do so. The film betrays the nationalism of the moment but is patriotic anyway. One of his sons is sure to raise the American flag in his absence, while Neil himself is never shown planting a flag in the moon. It is patriotic without ever being political. When he is gone, Janet suffers the most, struggling with their boys and terrified of the radio that broadcasts the mission into her home.
There is nothing else like the way First Man showcases the space crafts. They’re exposed as rickety tin cans propelled by fuel. We get inside them and feel the presence of dread that comes with even the smallest variables going awry. Because we know the ending, it would seem hard to supplant suspense, but Chazelle finds it anyway. The initial sequence is a failed test run, where Neil peaks through the atmosphere and comes tumbling down. Many of these sequences are absolutely nauseating, as training equipment spins us round like a carnival ride or the ships roll end over end without relief.
Every shot within a shuttle is informed by an unrelenting claustrophobia. The small portions of travel shown exist within the grand emptiness of space. It may be the most realistic and believable yet. This makes the film assuredly gripping and almost terrifying on the big screen and something is inevitably lost from watching it at home. Once we’re on the Moon at the Tranquility Base, and our heroes arrive from their long journey, the film finally allows itself a moment of the romantic fervor it had been building to. The second the latch is pulled open, all of the air and sound is sucked out of the room, we watch in quieted disbelief as the film explores new ways of creating iconic imagery.
Adapted for the screen by Spotlight and The Post writer Josh Singer (from the biography by James R. Hanson), his previous screenwriting acumen shows through constantly. It’s so clear that he has a deft hand for these quasi-political subjects and finding the humanity in them, that his work will continue to be rewarded for the foreseeable future. First Man excels based off this exceptionally written script.
By virtue of its characters, First Man never finds a personality beyond its grief. It never takes the sorrow and finds anything life affirming on the other end. Instead, it’s a bit of a dried out raisin, gritty and of the earth, but unwilling to reflect on the major accomplishment of its own journey. It is not very interested in the journey at all. People launch into space and land. It takes a little too long and despite its premise of human cost, Armstrong doesn’t make for an exceptionally personable or interesting character. Like space, his most interesting aspect is his absence of self – maybe that’s why he felt so at home leaving Earth.
First Man comes fitfully close to being everything it’s presumed to be. There remain better, more interesting options, like The Right Stuff (1983), which more successfully demonstrate the intensive progression provided by these scientific pioneers. First Man is more comfortable within its own claustrophobic niche of realism.. Chazelle has not exceeded the humanity of his prior projects despite the bigger story and that is the only thing keeping any recommendation grounded. Leaving the IMAX, a father and son were arriving for the next showing, wearing matching NASA shirts. I’m confident is going to be their favorite film of the last year and that is enough.
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