Damien Chazelle’s newest film, First Man, was not the film I thought it was going to be. For the better part of my life, I’ve been overly curious about space travel, astronomy, man’s place in the universe, and the sci-fi stories we weave about it all. Films like Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian have been my bread and butter for years. So when I first saw the exhilarating trailer for First Man, I was beside myself with anticipation.
For the uninitiated, First Man is a film acting simultaneously as Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) biopic and an intimate chronicling of America’s moonshot Gemini and Apollo programs. The tricky part of this movie is that basically everyone knows how it ends — Neil Armstrong steps out of that lunar lander and utters his famous words. So how do you construct a compelling narrative when your climax has already been spoiled by decades of history books?
Chazelle does this by demonstrating, more so than most films about spaceflight, the lunacy and dangers of strapping humans to essentially giant sticks of dynamite in an effort to do the unthinkable. Spaceflight is dangerous. There is no way to parse that to make it more palatable. Going to the Moon required these astronauts to place their lives on the great altar of exploration. Landing on the Moon cost the lives of many Americans — something the film doesn’t shy away from. Notably, the Apollo 1 disaster, where three astronauts burned alive awaiting launch, were especially trying times.
First Man’s Best
I’ll cut straight to it, First Man is at it’s best when the story focuses on spaceflight and the monumental task of landing on the Moon. Each countdown to zero feels like it could spell death for the astronauts. Chazelle basically created replicas of the actual Gemini and Apollo crew cabin which sewed a level of realism into the film rarely found in others. The camera stays inside the cockpit almost exclusively and the rockets screech and roar as if hell itself were trying to wrest its way into reality. It is, in every way, disorienting, anxiety-inducing, confusing, and absolutely what it must be like inside a rocket.
Visually First Man feels like a combination of Mallick’s Tree of Life and Kubrick’s Space Odyssey. When it isn’t mounted on the side of a rocket, the camera is handheld and almost always on the move while the framing is tight and close. This gives a claustrophobic feel to most scenes. The jury is still out as to whether this was a good or bad thing. There were times I wanted to shout at the screen, “hold the damn camera still!” But this meant that every wide shot, no matter how brief, feels like a breath of air. This leads to the most thrilling and beautiful scene in the entire movie of Apollo 11’s launch and the entire Moon exploration.
Chazelle masterfully utilizes the breadth and depth of IMAX as the lunar lander’s door opens up and Armstrong takes those legendary first steps. To underscore those first impactful moments, Chazelle cuts all the sound for what feels like a lifetime. This technique was used in last year’s The Last Jedi to create one the most cinematically breathtaking moments in the franchise. By cutting all sound and suddenly snapping to IMAX, Chazelle impresses the size of those few moments on the viewer. Combine this with what sounded like the original radio recordings between Armstrong, Aldrin, and Mission Control in Houston during the lunar exploration scenes, and you get the best and most powerful 20 minutes of the entire film.
Armstrong: Robot or Man?
However, First Man feels a bit like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz. Nice and shiny on the outside with slick impressive visuals and seamless acting, but nevertheless hollow and lacking heart. Allison Wilkinson over at Vox rightly notes that First Man is “less concerned with delivering a triumphalist portrayal of the 1969 moon landing…[than it is]probing what kind of person is able to white-knuckle through the physical, emotional, and psychological toll of this sort of mission and successfully pull it off.”
That is where First Man struggles. Neil Armstrong is not the charismatic archetypal hero. Honestly, he’s a bit of an oddball. NASA needing astronauts that wouldn’t have a panic attack when looking across the 238,900 miles of space between the Moon and the Earth. This means that the astronauts were generally emotionally stoic men. That Armstrong had even prepared such monumental words as “one small step” is a miracle. But when making a movie, this type of character presents a challenge to an audience.
Chazelle tries to help the audience empathize with Armstrong by making of him a man of sorrow. The shadow of death hangs over him, through the early death of his young daughter to cancer and the constant loss of colleagues throughout the Gemini and Apollo programs. Armstrong remains fairly stoic and reserved throughout. When he reaches orbit it’s all business and no real moments of awe. We get hints that Armstrong is capable of joy but nothing which demonstrates he is a dynamic human being. Which makes it hard for an audience to relate to him as a protagonist.
There is a scene in the film that serves as a microcosm for what I mean. At a press conference, Armstrong and Aldrin are bombarded with questions from reporters. Armstrong is asked how he feels that, if Apollo is successful and he’s the first man on the Moon, he will go down in history. Rather than humorous self-deprecation or an honest grapple with the question at hand, Armstrong replies curtly that we “plan on having the mission be successful.” This fills the conference room with a pregnant pause which is filled by the much more charismatic Buzz Aldrin who tries to salvage the question.
Armstrong is very much a mission-focused, literal-minded man with a penchant for subverting the space-cowboy archetype we are familiar with. Don’t get me wrong, as a character study, Armstrong was the right man for the job and his enigmatic nature has everything to do with it. But films like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 are dominated by the heroic cowboy archetype of American legend. It’s a nice change of pace to get a glimpse into the life of Armstrong, who was primarily an egghead.
This is frustrating to me because we literally have mission transcripts that demonstrate Armstrong was reserved and stoic, yes, but also an emotionally dynamic human being. He subtly teases a crewmember about space underwear, comments on the view from orbit, and excitedly goes through Moon rocks and samples with Aldrin and Collins. I think, in trying to create a biopic mediation on death and triumph, Chazelle ended up muting Neil Armstrong’s genuine humanity.
This ends up splitting First Man, tonally. My impression is the film couldn’t decide if it was a biopic about Neil Armstrong or a historical docudrama about the American space-race. It didn’t commit to either one fully which resulted in a film that was an impressive technical and visual accomplishment that was somewhat underwhelming. I never felt nervous, excited, or sad when the narrative wanted me to. I went in fully expecting to blubber like a baby. Yet, as I couldn’t relate to Chazelle’s portrayal of Armstrong, I felt fairly aloof from the story. While First Man accurately portrays the life of Armstrong as well as the Gemini and Apollo programs, it struggles to deliver the same feeling of awe those programs are imbibed with.
In the end, First Man is a film that people need to see despite it’s few shortcomings. Chazelle is an Academy Award-winning Director for a reason. His portrayal of spaceflight is as true-to-life as they come. Because our cinematic landscape is flooded with sci-fi epics like Star Trek and Star Wars we often forget just how courageous, brave, and maybe a bit crazy astronauts are. Definitely see First Man in theaters, though, and if at all possible in IMAX. The entirety of the lunar launch and landing sequence might be worth the price of admission.
Post-Script About Acting
First Man is packed to the brim with A-list actors. Ryan Gosling did a great job with the material he was given. For a man with talent and charisma coming out his butt, dialing it back to play a stoic Armstrong presented a unique challenge that Gosling performed admirably in. The rest of the cast from Claire Foy to Jason Clarke were equally great in their roles. Though, most characters lack any significant type of development. The only reason I don’t mention the acting above is that it wasn’t bad enough or great enough to mention. For me, the success of this film hinges on the narrative and its portrayal of Neil Armstrong.