First Man is a portrait of isolation
Going into this review, I want to make a handful of relevant biases clear. First, I really like both of Damien Chazelle’s previous feature films, Whiplash and La La Land. They aren’t flawless by any means, but I generally enjoy his approach to filmmaking.
The bigger bias influencing my reaction to Chazelle’s newest film, First Man, is that I am a total NASA geek. While I was not alive during the moon landing (my mother heard about the Challenger explosion during one of her final prenatal visits for me), I have a lot of deep feelings about our space program. We visited the Kennedy Space Center (back when we still sent men and women into space from there), and I’ve walked the corridors of the Air and Space Museum more times than I count. I’ve read more than a few books on manned flights through the end of Apollo, and devoured films like Apollo 13 and the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon.
When it comes right down to it, the combination of science, engineering, and audacity required to send people into space using 1960s technology is the most inspiring thing I can imagine. These astronauts, while still flawed human beings, were true heroes.
All of this was on my mind while watching Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic. Armstrong is bost the most and least obvious choice to profile. The obvious draw is that he was the commander of Apollo 11, the first man to step foot on any celestial body other than the earth. However, of all of the astronauts in the program, he is likely the most enigmatic. Compared to many other astronauts, Armstrong led a quiet life before and after the space program. I knew his story going into the film, and was curious as to what track Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer were going to take with the film.
The film opens with Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) flying an X-15, an experimental rocket-powered plane. He is tasked with flying it to the edge of the atmosphere, but the plane doesn’t cooperate with the air that thin. In the plane, we see Armstrong react quickly and with desperation, but not panic. When Armstrong returns to Earth, he is completely cool, and seems not to be shaken. First Man quickly reveals that test piloting, while dangerous, is easier for Armstrong to handle than what is going on at home. His two-year-old daughter Karen is battling cancer, and that occupies his thoughts.
After her passing, Armstrong sees applying for NASA’s Gemini program (named because it would send two men into space on the same rocket) as a way to get a fresh start. He and his wife Jan (Claire Foy) and their son move into a suburban neighborhood that is primarily other astronauts. The Armstrongs are closest to their neighbors, Ed White (Jason Clarke) and his wife Patricia (Olivia Hamilton).
First Man does a lot to emphasize the risk and sacrifice these men and their families endured as part of the Space Race. The primary example–and the major choice that sets First Man apart from every other similar film–is that we experience the launches of Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 from the astronaut’s point of view. Typically, that is shot from a perspective where you can see all of the astronauts inside the capsule, mixed in with recreated or footage from the actual launch. While Chazelle does indulge with some of that for Apollo 11, I was astounded by the point of view shots. The windows in the capsule are like the size of your hand, and most of your field of vision is consumed by the instrument panel, while some of the loudest sounds ever created reverberate around your head. These sequences capture the claustrophobia and disorientation they experienced during launch. Combined with the production design emphasis on the cobbled together look of NASA, the choices emphasize the special kind of courage it takes to subject yourself to the experience, even if the reward might match the risk.
Armstrong is also a man haunted by death. Not only his daughter, but test pilots and fellow astronauts. Funerals are a regular fixture of like for Neil and Jan, and they are all for young lives ended too soon. This also serves as the emotional core of the film. Armstrong is a man in grief, and a distant man. Is he in touch with his emotions, but refuses to express them? We will never know. Gosling portrays this well, showing Armstrong as quiet and contemplative, battling with putting his emotions aside in order to his job.
It’s a tried and true story of the Silent Generation, but it also makes him a difficult figure to center a film around. There’s no moment where Armstrong lets anyone in, not even his wife Jan. Not that Gosling lacks charm in the role, he shines in scenes as a father interacting with his sons, and does a lot of acting with his face. But Armstrong’s emotional reservedness and refusal to revel in the pageantry of his historic moment–the very reason he seems to have been selected for the job–do not make for a necessarily cinematic hero. Making a film about Armstrong’s Apollo 11 crewmate, the no-filter, cantankerous Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), would be much easier.
Chazelle’s previous two films both focus on men with dreams and the choices they make in order to get there. Sacrifice is a huge theme for him, and while that is represented differently in First Man, it still feels like a weird choice because we don’t know what Armstrong’s reason is for doing what he does. Is it his grief or guilt around the death of his daughter? Or his need to keep himself distracted from his own emotions? While a moment on the moon seems to provide catharsis, we don’t get much beyond it to see the effect this has on Armstrong going forward.
This is where some of my issues with the film come into play. Whether it was studio notes or always intended, the closer the film gets to the moon landing, the less focused it becomes. We see protestors wanting NASA’s budget for welfare programs, and people inspired around the world, but none of that seems to matter to Armstrong, and it just makes the film feel that much more like it is trodding a well-worn path by the end.
I do unabashedly love the film’s score by Justin Hurwitz. Lying at a hypothetical mid-point between the classical ballet employed by Stanley Kubrick in 2001 and Hans Zimmer’s whirling Interstellar score, Hurwitz captures the beautiful isolation of grief as well as space. A huge orchestra paired with some vintage synthesizers and a theremin put it right up there with Annihilation and Mission: Impossible–Fallout for the year’s best so far.
First Man opens in Philly theaters today.