Director: Damien Chazelle
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler
If your preconception of First Man is something akin to the puffed-chest pride of Apollo 13 or the adventurous stupidity of Armageddon then you are setting yourself up to be confounded. Damien Chazelle returns from the glitz and gloss of La La Land with a sharp tonal about-turn, retelling eight years of Neil Armstrong’s life up to and including the famed Apollo 11 mission, but framing it as a profoundly melancholic journey of quiet grief.
After a virtuoso opening which finds Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) cresting the atmosphere as a test pilot, we come down to Earth with a bump to discover that his daughter Karen has cancer. Space-age machines with gigantic claws investigate her. And as we’re adjusting to this, she dies, leaving Neil in something of an emotional airlock.
With episodic time jumps we follow Armstrong’s course through the NASA space program and life goes on. He and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) have another child. They move house. All the while, a distance remains between the couple. In Chazelle’s reading of Armstrong this is self-imposed. Gosling – the perfect foil for this interpretation – shies from opening up about his pain and uses his job as an escape hatch from the difficult questions at home.
Gosling is known (and sometimes mocked) for his blank-faced protagonists, and there’s a shade of that here undoubtedly, but Chazelle manages to suggest that there’s an ocean of turmoil going on beneath that surface. When dealing with its human element, First Man is all close-ups, blocking these characters in, not allowing them breathing space. The impression cast is of a marriage where neither party is allowed to be their full self.
This quest for resolution – for some kind of quietude – casts First Man as surprisingly downbeat. This is as sad as space exploration has ever seemed. But when Chazelle turns his attention to the mechanics of the missions – and the risks – the picture comes alive in other ways.
Opting for something experiential as opposed to traditionally impressive, Chazelle opts to place you inside the vehicles with Gosling and co, as opposed to presenting these tin can crafts as dizzying effects showcases. The results are, for a mainstream picture, decidedly abstract. Sure, he shakes the camera in Gosling’s face as though he’s entering the stargate from 2001: A Space Odyssey, hammering home how rickety these vehicles were, but at other times the depiction of space travel is reduced to cryptic shards of light and unknowable objects juddering into view. It’s disorienting, thrilling, unexpected and strangely beautiful. Liftoff and landing become art-house experiences.
First Man comes with a formidable supporting cast of sturdy character players (Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Patrick Fugit, Shea Whigham to name but a few), and Claire Foy does her part to make Janet sympathetic with limited screen time, but this is very much an investigation into a tenderly maintained masculine persona. The spirit of Karen never leaves Armstrong’s thoughts. She is a ghost throughout the picture, which plays through pleasing grain like something Nicolas Roeg might have made in the seventies, with shades of Malick thrown in during the scenes of domesticity.
In capturing these moments – which have the charm of old Super 8 home movies – to the aforementioned abstractions caught within and without the various spacecraft, the MVP of First Man is revealed to be cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who imbues the film with corroded nostalgia. It’s there in the glow of the thin layer of atmosphere Armstrong encounters at the start of the picture as much as it is in, say, a family picnic. The mood is poignant, and the NASA program is cast in a strange light as a result.
Armstrong’s unspoken pain envelopes the mission (or the perspective on it brought to us by Chazelle at least). It makes this ambitious and costly endeavour seem like a personal one. It is not just a giant leap for mankind. Screw mankind. First Man sees Armstrong turn the mission to the moon into a kind of vital journey to catharsis. The Apollo 11 flight that forms the film’s third act isn’t a glorified, patriotic exercise. It’s a multi-million dollar therapy session that Armstrong hasn’t told anyone about.
Perhaps screenwriter Josh Singer has played pop psychologist a little liberally here, connecting the death of Karen with Armstrong’s career; making it his Rosebud. But the result eked out by Chazelle is remarkable nonetheless. Advanced word on First Man has been mixed, and it is likely to split audiences, especially those anticipating a more traditional approach to the hero’s biopic or the space film.
The film First Man most keenly brought to mind was Pablo Larraín’s recent Jackie, which similarly investigated a broken figure thrust into the spotlight during a time of immense turmoil. Where that film concentrated grief into a burst of days, Chazelle’s makes reconciling it a lifelong mission. There are many perfect shots during the immediate aftermath of the moon landing that would’ve made beautiful closers for this movie. And with his reflective visor, Gosling’s Armstrong is suitably obliterated. But ultimately the choice to keep going and close out on a moment of small human reconciliation feels like the right one.
After staring into the void, everyone needs a little relief.
After La La Land I had expected First Man to be pure awards bait. Maybe it still is. But I found something else here, too. Enigmatic as it is, distant as Armstrong remains, Chazelle’s space race feels like his most personal film yet. While it doesn’t ever attempt to rekindle the breathless thrills of Whiplash, it goes somewhere more humble and thoughtful than anticipated. Whether that’s the film you wanted to turn up for doesn’t really seem to be bothering its director.