Halfway through Neal Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) Gemini 8 mission – an experiment to see if docking two spacecrafts in orbit is possible – Armstrong runs into a slight hitch. Their spacecraft has overshot the target and can’t see the second spacecraft. There is the usual burst of chatter as his pilot and mission control try to ascertain what went wrong but Armstrong shushes all of them. This is because he is busy trying to work out the flight adjustments he will have to make on pencil and paper in orbit. For a generation of smartphone-dependent and GPS-enabled people like me this moment in First Man crystalizes just how categorically insane it was that this was the time we decided to go to the moon, and of the special bravery required of the men who undertook the task.
Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) is the latest director to set his eyes to the heavens but unlike in space movies past, his focus is not so much on the grandeur of outer space nor the impact space exploration has on the psyche of the human population. Rather he uses the journey of placing a man on the moon as an opportunity to hone in myopically on that one man, creating a claustrophobic movie that is fraught with anxieties as Chazelle explores the psychological impact of asking an exceptionally talented man to take on an exceptionally difficult task. In this Chazelle finds himself returning successfully to the same well he drew upon for his first movie Whiplash, even if it may leave traditional space movie enthusiasts feeling a little cold.
Refreshingly Chazelle seems entirely resistant to following the conventions of a traditional biopic. Gosling’s Neal Armstrong is not one for strong emotions, big speeches, and most importantly pontificating on the historical significance of his achievements while still experiencing the moment himself. Instead in this movie Armstrong joins the Apollo program because he finds himself, as a man of the Leave it to Beaver generation, entirely ill-equipped to deal with the death of his two-year old daughter to cancer. A traditional biopic would play this tragedy up for tearjerker effect; here his daughter’s death remains a mere haunted specter who pushes Armstrong to the moon either as a motivation to achieve the impossible or an escape from his inability to process grief. Gosling plays Armstrong with his typical minimalist charisma so it is never clear which of these two motivations really drives him, but it makes him a compelling, if glacial figure.
If First Man does not provide easy answers as to what made Neal Armstrong tick, it does make up for that in its cerebral procedural aesthetic. More than any recent space movie, First Man is one that revels in showing us the gritty nuts and bolts required to propel someone to the moon. In many ways it is a love letter to space exploration – everything from space training to putting on a space suit to mission debriefings to mission protocol is shown in meticulous detail. It is also the first movie that truly displays how perilous traveling in space actually is. Each space flight sequence is sensorially overwhelming; each aircraft squeaks and rattles in protest as they are put through their paces or try to escape the earth’s gravity while the pilots sit helplessly by. Sirens blare periodically or radio chatter floods the narrow and cramped cockpits as Armstrong and his fellow NASA pilots use all their mental capacities to try to not only keep themselves alive but accomplish whatever mission they’ve been sent out to do. These moments are visceral, and viewers like myself who are prone to claustrophobia should be warned that the movie is terrifyingly effective and ratcheting up tension and anxiety in those cramped cockpits.
But if each space flight provides the clear highlights in the movie, it is because the rest of the movie never truly coalesces. Part of this has to do with the isolating nature of the narrative. Apart from Gosling’s Armstrong there are hardly any characters who have anything approaching dimensionality. Claire Foy comes closest as Neal’s wife Janet, but this has to do more with Foy’s exceptional acting than anything in the script. She makes do and adds nuance to the role of long-suffering wife who is forced to keep everything on earth, including their family, together while Neal remains emotionally and practically absent. It is not the most rewarding role but Foy certainly makes the most of it. Meanwhile great actors like Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Patrick Fugit, and Ciaran Hinds are all given basically throwaway characters with little to do and little chance to form a meaningful connection with Neal Armstrong. Most egregiously Corey Stoll is wasted as Buzz Aldrin. His brash, boisterous, and cocky flyboy persona should have been the perfect foil to the glacial Armstrong, and exploring their contentious relationship would seem like a natural fit for this narrative. Unfortunately their potential rivalry is never explored which robs their ultimate coming together for the Apollo 11 mission of most of its narrative power.
This brings me to the biggest problem with this movie: the closer you get to the end, the less surprise and wonder there is. The movie appropriately climaxes with (spoiler-alert?) the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, which is the part of Neal Armstrong’s story that we are most familiar with. These story beats have been drilled into anyone who paid even the slightest attention in history class or lived through that momentous event, and we all have a mental picture of what it looked like. Chazelle thus has only three ways to make it interesting. The first is by giving us the traditional biopic narrative beats so that Armstrong’s journey to the moon also represents his emotional and spiritual crescendo. Of course he refuses to do that, which benefits him in most of the movie, but does him no favors in the climax. His second option is to give us visuals we have never seen before, but sadly this is not the case. In recent years we have gotten a glut of visually impressive space movies and First Man does not stand out visually amongst that pack. Thus he leans on his last option, which is to make the journey to the moon a visceral and intimate experience so that we become proxy astronauts ourselves. This he does to great effect, but unfortunately by the time the Apollo 11 mission comes around he has already given us that visceral experience in several previous flight scenes, and so the novelty has worn off. What should have been a dramatic crescendo with Neal Armstrong stepping on the moon instead feels like the most perfunctory part of the movie.
This is not to say I’m overly negative about the movie. It is a frequently compelling biopic that refreshingly breaks from many of the tired tropes of a biopic. And Chazelle proves himself especially adept at shooting and choreographing the many flight sequences that prove to be the highlight of the movie. It is a worthy addition to the mini-canon of space movies and a worthy window into the life and person of Neal Armstrong. And more than anything, it is a love letter to NASA, science, and our primal quest for human exploration. If First Man never achieves its lofty ambitions, there is no doubt that it lands among the stars.
Runtime: 141 minutes
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Written by Josh King
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Patrick Fugit, Christopher Abbott, Ciaran Hinds, Olivia Hamilton.