Neil Armstrong was an intensely private man. After landing on the Moon, he studiously avoided the spotlight. Instead, he taught graduate students at a small college in Ohio and even wrote children’s poetry. Armstrong probably would have hated First Man, a film that dramatizes the Apollo 11 mission and his personality flaws. This is an intense, sometimes moving film. It is also a strange one, since Armstrong comes off as an inert, borderline passive figure. This also marks Damien Chazelle’s first effort that isn’t about a Big Jazz Boy, and he establishes himself as a shrewd, empathetic chronicler of male interiority. By putting the Moon landing into Armstrong’s point of view, we get a stronger sense of just what he accomplished, and at what cost.
When we meet Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), he is flying a plane that’s just above the Earth’s atmosphere. The vastness of space – cold, infinite, eerily silent – offers a moment of peace before the plane careens back to the surface. Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer contrast the comfort of space with a tragic domestic life. His daughter Karen died at age two, and while his wife Janet (Claire Foy) chats with friends after the funeral, he sequesters himself to grieve privately. He jumps at the opportunity to join NASA’s Gemini program, and soon he works with other astronauts to beat the Soviets in the Space Race. Others see Armstrong as a cold fish, but his closed-off nature is what makes him an ideal candidate for space travel. That quality is also to Janet’s chagrin, since his single-minded devotion to the mission leads to basic failings as a husband and father.
First Man is an interesting contrast from The Right Stuff, since both films include many of the same astronauts. Both films use space travel as a chance to explore different kinds of masculinity: The Right Stuff is about cocky, smart men who succeeded with the right combination of confidence and bravado. First Man is about a quieter, inward masculinity: Armstrong comes off as the sort who did not see emotion as weakness, exactly, but saw it as no one else’s business. In a thankless performance, Foy humanizes her husband by being someone who could put up with his nature – at least up to a point. There is a remarkable scene where Janet forces Neil to sit down with his children, explaining to them he may not survive the mission. The subtext for the scene is heartbreaking: Janet has given up on the idea of receiving any of the same comfort. Gosling’s excellent performance is oddly similar to his android character from Blade Runner 2049. He keeps things coiled and reserved, and yet there are tics that let us see the inner tumult.
While this is the first Chazelle film that is not ostensibly about music, he and his team understand the power of sound. The sound design in First Man is amazing, and critical to the film’s success. There is a sequence where Armstrong undergoes the Gemini 8 mission with David Scott (Christopher Abbott), and we know something is wrong from the intense, booming mix of explosions and curdled metal. This is a loud sequence, bordering on thunderous, and we feel Armstrong’s experience because Chazelle’s camera never leaves the spaceship. His camera focuses on their faces as they’re increasingly obscured by the turbulence. This is “shaky cam” with a purpose: we have seen countless films where spaceships fly off course, but few feel disastrous in such an immediate way. The craft and thoughtfulness of this sequence only highlights Chazelle’s occasional missteps, like when he steals the handheld, wistful camerawork from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.
All these threads come into focus during the Apollo 11 mission. Corey Stoll plays Buzz Aldrin like the yin to Armstrong’s yang. Aldrin is gruff and unafraid to be uncouth, so he bristles with Armstrong’s cool nature. That tension drifts away as they settle into the spaceship. Chazelle heightens the uncertainty of what they’re attempting, particularly when Armstrong manually guides the lunar lander on the Moon’s surface. These scenes unfold like a thriller, made all the more intense because both Armstrong/Aldrin are silent. The actual moonwalk is an intriguing mix of Hollywood and indie sensibilities: the soundtrack evaporates as the camera whips forward onto the Moon’s surface, and around that time we also hear a punishing crescendo of Justin Hurwitz’s score. These men feel some patriotism – the Republicans who poo-pooed the film’s handling of the American flag should have kept their mouths shut – but mostly the Moon seems surreal, almost lonesome (Aldrin called it “magnificent desolation,” and Chazelle seemingly internalizes that). The experience changed Armstrong in ways he probably could never articulate, and the poignant final scenes are where he finds his humanity again.
Like any biopic, First Man takes a lot of liberties about what actually happened. For example, Chazelle films Aldrin acting like a goofy kid on the Moon’s surface, bouncing up and down, but Aldrin also treated the landing with solemnity and even took communion there. But cinema is not exactly history, and these omissions/exaggerations are all in greater service of a greater purpose. There are few human impulses more universal than the desire to explore, and few thrills greater than the sense of discovery. First Man recreates what that probably felt like, using nothing less than the greatest achievement of human exploration. What deepens that achievement – and what makes First Man an important film – is how Armstrong’s impulses are borne out of a desire to jettison his pain. Most men have the privilege to use travel and work as a reprieve from their family life. Neil Armstrong left his family behind and traveled over 200,000 miles for work, and First Man understands what that says about him.