'First Man' Is Authentic, Romantic About Neil Armstrong's Lunar Obsession
And the Oscar race is upon us.
The only thing I regret about seeing First Man was not seeing it in IMAX. The Apollo 11 lunar landing pulses with danger right up until, finally, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are on the moon. Then composer Justin Hurwitz's music cuts out. Director Damien Chazelle presents the surface of the Moon in silence. They made it, and the Sea of Tranquility has never been more tranquil. First Man is a movie about formulas, details, and the procedure behind actually landing a human being on the Moon. But, in this one moment, Chazelle reminds us of the romance of space travel, and what all that hard work is really for.
From the beginning sequence that finds Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong test flying a plane that's not working, it's apparent First Man is like nothing Chazelle has done before. Gone is the rhythm of Whiplash, the magical realism of La La Land. In their places are handheld close-ups and a devotion to human drama we haven't seen from the 33-year-old filmmaker. First Man recreates the Apollo 11 mission, but it's foremost a film about Armstrong, and we experience everything from his
Gosling turns in a professional, expert performance as Armstrong, conveying little with words, but a lot with action. We learn about his relationship with his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), through body language. Janet is like most wives in these space movies — scared and pissed off she may lose her husband, and for what? Chazelle and his production design team also do a stellar job showing the equipment used by NASA back in the '60s. It's incredible how primitive much of it seems. How can we blame Janet for being skeptical? Her husband wants to go to the Moon, literally.
Janet's anger and the Armstrong kids don't dissuade Neil from his mission, and it's in these moments that we start to recognize some of Chazelle's favorite themes. First Man may not be the most musical film, but the director has made another movie about realizing a dream. Armstrong, for all his pragmatism, is a man with a goal, and not even his family can slow him down. They are in his peripheral. The astronaut is aware, but distant. He can't let his emotions overpower his obsession. When he knows Janet is angry with him, he turns around and goes the other way.
Yet, Armstrong isn't a complicated guy. He's just from a time when men were men and women were women. First Man doesn't try to portray its real-life characters as people they were not. At the time, the Apollo 11 mission was everything, and "silly" things like making sure your wife still has a husband afterward go by the wayside. The pressure on NASA and thus on the astronauts, Armstrong, Aldrin (Corey Stoll), Mike Collins (Lukas Haas), and their team (including Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton) is magnificent and we can feel that weight. Gosling carries it like an anvil.
First Man thrives in its big budget, space moments, but they work so well because we know how much has gone into getting there. Space travel is inherently dangerous, we know this. Other movies have conveyed it well, and realistically. Apollo 13 was a highlight in the '90s, and Gravity set the bar higher a few years back. But First Man has elevated the space adventure genre once more. It's a combination of those two films since we learn what it takes from the ground up and then get to actually experience a Moon landing. Of course, I imagine it doesn't compare to the real thing. But we'd have to ask Neil Armstrong.