It’s unnecessary to call First Man a great space film because its not a film about space. It’s literally about a man, the first man, a man who was human, who did live and breathe, and was far more than a grainy 2D black-and-white image. He was three dimensional, in every aspect of his distant, yet caring personality. Director Damien Chazelle, for his fourth feature film, captures that cold space between grief and duty which Neil Armstrong so inhabited.
He’s joined in his exploration of Armstrong by Ryan Gosling, who plays this unlikely and unique American hero, encapsulating this man, his subject, because to call Armstrong obsessive would be like calling the moon’s gravity weightless. It doesn’t entirely sum him up. Instead, he was manically driven, cerebral, reserved, and possessed a dry wit.
With this American hero there’s always a balance between awe and service, grieving and service, family and service, with a larger arc of humility. He’s different from other swashbuckling self-absorbed hand me down’s from the American pop culture of heroism, which finds much of its heroic value in Bruce Willis’s John McClane more than the shy and quiet type. His humility is notably found whenever Armstrong receives good news. In these moments, Gosling typically gives a beat, then reacts. It’s the cerebral mechanism of Armstrong, which puts personal emotion to the side and service first that Gosling understands. Gosling in his subtly towards the character, makes what’s ultimately an intimately shot film, relying on extreme close-ups, distant in its presentation.
This can only be successfully accomplished through Josh Singer‘s tight screenplay based off of James R. Hansen‘s immaculately researched biography of Neil Armstrong. Each scene seamlessly builds towards the other, much in the way that each test, from the X-15 to Gemini VIII, to the ultimate flight of Apollo 11 builds off one another. Each scene is directed to not only show a component of the final mission, but a portion of Armstrong. He builds from an unlikely astronaut, contending with the bereavement of losing his daughter Karen to cancer and fellow pilots to the hazards of the job, to a walking talking endurance of trials and tribulations that makes him perfect for the fragility of the aircraft he must control to the pitiless craters of the moon.
Chazelle assists by aptly balancing the line between documentarian and home filmmaker, as his camera gazes in-and-around the family home, intrusive of its subjects’ most intimate moments.
Claire Foy, portraying Armstrong’s wife Janet, is criminally under utilized, yet makes every second of her screen time worth it. The intimate and humanizing scenes aren’t valuable, if Foy isn’t artfully searching, finding, and seizing every unique fold of the couple’s dynamic. Her subject, Janet, is in the enviable position of understanding Neil, and we partly learn of Armstrong through her. We see more of his sense of humor, and First Man is a surprisingly funny film that’s filled with Armstrong’s dry wit and later Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll)’s propensity to say what’s on his mind, through her. It’s another subtle performance in a film that gets that the drama isn’t solely in the space flight, it’s in the mundane, a quotidian life which can be lost like a piece of flawed wiring.
The camera’s usage in the domestic scenes are in rough juxtaposition to the space and flight sequences. Use of motion-based rigs, put us in the cockpit with these men. The shakiness of the cam is the force these men felt as they hurtled back toward Earth in what amounted to tin coffins.
Few films have been as visceral as First Man, when it comes to displaying these astronauts in simulators passing out or on the precipice of death as their ships careen into empty and unforgivable space. It’s a feeling of an almost inevitable and deadly spiral that’s punctuated by the sound mixing and editing and score. Many of the sound profiles aren’t common or easy to find, such as the uncontrollable whipping of a steal rubik’s cube made to make the astronauts pass out. Few rockets have filled head room like that of the Saturn V’s, hoarsely shrieking through the speakers. They’re epic and powerful. The sound of every piece of machinery is sharp and heavy, as if these primitive forms of technology were meant to give way and collapse.
Thrown into relation with Justin Hurwitz‘s score, which mixes the alienistic sounds of the theremin, the propulsive plucking of strings, and a juxtaposed La La Land-esque use of strings which adds a fanciful gaiety to the grim, yet determined score, and the mere and near impossibility of so many tiny clock-like working machines operating in sequence at once, as hundreds of engineers, pilots, and mission controllers tirelessly work toward success and safety, and we truly feel the unvarnished gravity of this near suicidal, yet heroic undertaking.
First Man is Damien Chazelle’s best film, which at this point, even in his young career, is saying something. Meant to be seen on the biggest screen imaginable, the film deconstructs the biopic as it bravely believes in a story that requires no fluff, never attempting to make its subject into a postage stamp. Instead, Neil Armstrong is replete here as a hero of the everyday becoming our hero of our everydays, our every single and thankful mundane everydays. In totality, First Man is a giant and perfect leap.