“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” President John F. Kennedy’s famous speech, delivered from a podium at Rice Stadium in Houston, appropriately closes director Damien Chazelle’s (La La Land, Whiplash) First Man. Nothing about Chazelle’s whirlwind of a film is easy. It’s not the first film to tackle mankind’s unthinkable voyage, and it certainly will not be the last, but it is the first to do so without falling into the grandiose of its journey.
First Man is a focused narrative, driven by the titular man, while his journey acts more as MacGuffin than focal point. Why do we go to the Moon? Why do we climb the tallest mountain? Why does Texas play Rice? Who cares. Ryan Gosling is a force of nature as he embodies Neil Armstrong, distraught from the tragic death of his three-year-old daughter Karen. Armstrong, notoriously private, keeps himself and his emotions even from wife Janet (a sublime Claire Foye) and sons Rick and Mark. Neil dives into his work, setting aside notes from radiology for his daughters cancer to workout math problems related to space flight.
We are allowed into Neil’s head, however, as deft cinematography from Linus Sandgren (La La Land, American Hustle) keeps the camera tight and focused on the leading man and woman. Chazelle even opts to completely ignore the spacecraft during the Gemini 8 mission, instead allowing Sandgren to navigate the inside of the Gemini capsule with the intimacy the astronauts themselves experienced. This artistry is not for those prone to motion sickness, as the camera operates with a shaky chaos that accurately displays the turbulent decade, and space program, it portrays.
The choice to keep the lens inches from the blood, sweat, and tears of Gosling’s Armstrong allows us a window into a private man’s mind. Ever cool and calm, Armstrong shows a propensity for problem solving even under the most unbelievable stressors, and an unwavering commitment to his mission. When being interviewed for the Gemini program, Armstrong is asked if his daughter’s death would be a distraction. Au contraire, the space program isArmstrong’s distraction. He buries himself in his work to ignore his emotions, risking life and limb before daring to face his wife, or sons, or friends in an honest conversation about his daughters death. Alone in the backyard gazing at the Moon, he decides not to mourn the deaths of Elliot See and Charles Bassett. Fellow astronaut Ed White (Jason Clarke, of TV’s Brotherhood, and Zero Dark Thirty) comes to his side, instructing Neil to be with his wife and his sons. “Do you think I’d be out here if I wanted to talk to somebody?” Neil coldly responds. The Moon is all he can see.
Janet Armstrong isn’t particularly happy with Neil’s voracious approach to work, as she and her sons live their lives seemingly separately from their otherworldly father. Foye delivers Janet’s borderline resentment beautifully as she befriends fellow Astronaut Wife Pat White (a perfectly understated Olivia Hamilton). “I married Neil to have a normal life.” Janet laments, as her husband’s reluctantly public life is anything but normal. Things get even more complicated when the Apollo One plugs-out tests results in a fire exacerbated by oxygen, taking the lives of Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee. Neil shatters a wine glass in the White House when he hears the news over the phone, while Janet wonders if her husbands life is a worthwhile risk.
The show must go on, however, and the Apollo Program chugs along despite mounting public opposition. As the public dissents Vietnam, LBJ, and NASA, Armstrong becomes even more focused on his trip to the Moon. When they finally get there, Chazelle lets the score, masterfully conducted by La La Land’s Justin Hurwitz, and the cinematography take control. Chazelle is a poet in motion with First Man, never losing sight of the man who committed himself to making the flight possible. He allows us an intimate moment (perfectly balanced in emotion by Gosling’s virtuosic performance) on the edge of a lunar crater. With Armstrong as isolated as humanly possible – only Corey Stoll’s (House of Cards) Buzz Aldrin accompanies Neil – he finally, and privately, mourns his daughter. While this bit may not be historically accurate, it hammers home the emotional gut punch of a crescendo First Man had built to.
Keep your Anti-American sentiments at home. Chazelle opts not to show Armstrong plant the flag on the lunar surface, and in the context of a film that’s more personal than epic, it’s a brilliant decision. I think on a line delivered early by NASA Chief Deke Slayton (the ever brilliant Kyle Chandler) as he draws the distance from the Earth to the Moon on a chalkboard. “It’s to scale, check it.” and after a minor adjustment, “well, almost to scale.” First Man never gets lost in the scale of a trip to the Moon, it knows it’s size perfectly. For a man who was larger than life, it paints him almost to scale.
Final Score: A