There has never been a film about space exploration like First Man. While most possess a passing knowledge about NASA and Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for man,” the new film from writer and director Damien Chazelle places the emphasis on the struggles of the astronauts, not the spectacle of their occupation or the triumphant aftermath. While this is a dazzling work from beginning to end, the Whiplash and La La Land filmmaker once again draws us in with another immediate, you-are-there production on the cost of being obsessed with one’s greatest talent.
Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong, the NASA test pilot and engineer whose lengthy preparation to be the first man on the moon took a great toll on his family. When we first meet Armstrong, he’s mourning the death of his young daughter. When Armstrong is selected to join a team of astronauts struggling to defeat Russia in the 1960’s space race, he’s grief stricken, not only from his recent family tragedy, but from processing the fatal accidents that took the lives of so many of his colleagues. Death is constantly plaguing Armstrong; though he’s so extraordinary under pressure, the seams only show when he’s around his family. Armstrong is depicted as being the most alive when he’s constricted to his claustrophobic, hermetically sealed cockpit, figuring out how to survive each moment. By contrast, in the expanse of his house with his wife and two sons, he’s distant and introverted.
Chazelle’s film presents a balanced examination of the “why’s” of space travel and provides a complex study of how grieving is a profound human expression. Every moment being in outer space presents a potential misstep or accident that could lead to disaster; the astronauts who survive their missions are not only collecting scientific data but aiming for the greater reward: to walk away from yet another potentially fatal mission.
Only Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff has ever examined the mythos of NASA and the hard reality of those who enter space with this much depth. Another aspect First Man shares with The Right Stuff: it’s one of the strongest works ever made about the mindsets of those who are known publicly as “heroes” but struggle with their roles when out of the spotlight. It’s not simply the look of the era the film gets right, but the mindset.
This is an uncommonly grim and intense look at the momentous decade NASA had in the 1960’s; First Man is less celebratory and more a clinical observation on the unique individuals who sacrificed everything in the name of scientific progress.
Gosling gives one of his very best performances, always fascinating and true in his portrayal of Armstrong as both unquestionably heroic but frustratingly aloof and hidden in his private life. Claire Foy is excellent as his wife, giving immediacy to a role that could have been all reaction shots and “You’re gonna die up there!” monologues. Instead, Foy matches Gosling in her depiction of a parent struggling to push forward after the loss of a child. The entire ensemble cast (which includes Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Lukas Haas, Patrick Fugit, and Kyle Chandler) is impressive and smartly assembled.
Some of the outer space sequences are depicted with shaky camera work and aggressive editing, which can feel like an assault on the senses. Yet, it conveys to the audience the queasy, unsafe feeling that the astronauts experienced when something went wrong.
The two lead performances, cinematography, score, direction, and especially the sound design are all awards worthy. Despite how tough much of this is, First Man feels far more real than anything in Apollo 13, though it shares that film’s love for the era and subject matter. There are moments of visual poetry and character insight that brought the works of Stanley Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman to mind. This is one of the few 2018 films that I can’t wait to see again.
First Man is a giant leap forward for Chazelle, who has taken a familiar 20th century history lesson, molded it into a personal, cinematically rich, and challenging work and, as a result, unveiled a masterpiece.
–originally published in Maui Time Weekly