First Man from Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle firmly puts audiences in Neil Armstrong’s emotional struggle to get to the moon. Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong with a deft hand and Claire Foy is sublime as his wife, Janet. Now in theaters, see this film in IMAX if you can. It’s worth the price of admission.
Damien Chazelle has proved repeatedly that his films, which center on a driven character who struggles to be more than they are, resonate with audiences. Yes, Whiplash is a niche audience film and J. K. Simmons earned his Oscar win in that film. La La Land, which was intended for a niche audience, used a musical to push its characters in the same direction, reached a much wider audience and attracted a rather heated Oscar season two years ago. It certainly earned the accolades it received.
Chazelle’s latest film, First Man, which opens in theaters today, is the story of Neil Armstrong, the first man to step foot on our moon. La La Land alum Ryan Gosling plays the pivotal role of Armstrong in the film, a man who was determined to help the nation’s fledgling space program succeed was also hampered by the fact that he couldn’t save his daughter from cancer. That loss fueled his desire to see the success in the program.
Josh Singer’s (Spotlight, The Post, TV’s West Wing) script firmly puts us in the middle of Armstong’s struggles and his adventure. That’s the adjective that can best describe what we see on the screen: this is Armstrong’s adventure.
And, that’s the beauty of this film is that it centers solely on Armstrong’s adventure. Here he is presented as a private individual, filled with guilt that he cannot shake. Claire Foy plays his wife, Janet. In the times the film is set in, she is the obedient wife. If that seems chauvinist, it’s because that’s the way the relationship is presented on the film. However, Foy’s performance is so much more. She realizes the trauma her husband is going through and tries to be there to support him.
There’s a scene during one of the earlier Gemini missions where something goes critically wrong and Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) pulls the plug on the remote radio transmission that Janet listening to so that she doesn’t have to hear her husband struggle. She marches right down to NASA headquarters and demands that he turn the transmission back on. Slayton refuses at first, thinking of her feelings, but her insistence is her way of protecting her husband.
I wasn’t even alive when this happened, but the film paints a picture of the struggles to get the Apollo program off the ground and the race to beat the Russians, who were always a step ahead of us in the space race. Many of the characters that populate the film have been seen before in other iterations of this era in our history, most notably Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 and Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff. Both films did these events and those real-life people more justice, while First Man really puts us front and center in the danger and adventure that Chazelle presents to us.
Yet, this perspective diminishes the efforts of the other people that helped get the space program moving along.
Because Armstrong was so resolute and determined, the secondary characters seem so much smaller, and that is intentional, even if it sometimes gets to be a little offputting. There is an aesthetic though to Chazelle’s first-person point of view: we’re shaken with Armstrong as the rocket blasts off, we’re emotionally driven as he takes those first steps on the moon. The film succeeds if only because our surroundings are alive even if Gosling’s Armstrong is statically appropriate for such a personal journey.
Corey Stoll plays Buzz Aldrin, who is famous in his own right. The film paints this Aldrin as an overly honest individual. Whether that’s true or not, it came across as ingratiating. Jason Clarke plays Edward White, and Armstrong’s neighbor. The film depict them as initially being in a race for the job, but quickly transitions them into a friendship. Unless you’ve lived under a moon rock for the past 50 years, I’m not giving this next part away. White along with Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith) and Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham, who I thought had one of the best supporting performances in the film), died tragically when an electrical spark ignited the oxygen on the Apollo 1 spacecraft during a routine test. Chazelle and Singer really use this point to drive some emotional mileage out of the film.
Linus Sandgren, also a Chazelle alum for his award winning work on La La Land firmly puts us in the center of the action. He uses close-ups on Gosling most frequently, even in the exterior scenes where he wants nothing more than to be alone despite his colleagues pushes to get him to talk. His work really sings though when we’re in the Gemini or Apollo rockets and is even more impactful in the lunar landing, where IMAX cameras take full advantage of the format. The isolation the character felt is never more present then in these moments on the moon.
And, though it is a long journey for the audience, it is rewarding because we can finally see Armstrong in his moment, allowing him to emotionally release. Yes, the American flag is present in the scene. Because this is Armstrong’s emotional journey, it is not imperative to the story that an audience see Aldrin and he plant the flag. That’s not what the story is focused on and it doesn’t degrade the story.
The film begins as it ends: in emotional isolation. Gosling was the perfect actor to play this role because he plays “isolated” so well, emotionally bereft, but still working toward a common goal. Chazelle made a few interesting choices towards the third act, including Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey On the Moon” as a way of saying that race relations are just as alive and well in 2018 as they were in the late 1960’s.
But Chazelle counters his own thoughts with the impassioned JFK speech giving NASA its charter. It truly concludes Armstrong’s emotional journey in this story, but this story element allows us to collectively share in the emotionalism and patriotism that the country felt, the pride in accomplishing this feat. I couldn’t help but think about Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys which is really what this film presents, but from Armstrong’s point of view. Eastwood had originally optioned the James Hansen biography, but they eventually lapsed. In that regard, this film feels closer to Space Cowboys rather than Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff: they are all important works of art with different vantage points. Some are more effective, but First Man is a hell of a flawed ride.
Now in theaters, First Man is rated PG-13.