Director Damien Chazelle is obsessed with the pursuit of perfection. The protagonists of his films make great sacrifices to achieve their goals. In Whiplash, Andrew Neiman will forsake friends and family, spending his every free moment to become a better jazz drummer. In La La Land, Sebastian and Mia are willing to let their relationship crumble while they chase their respective dreams of becoming a successful musician and actor. In First Man, Chazelle turns his perfection obsessed gaze to a real-life figure. Astronaut Neil Armstrong and the rest of the people involved in the Apollo space program had one goal: to set foot on the moon. Several people gave their lives in the effort to achieve this goal.
Screenwriter Josh Singer is also no stranger to projects featuring characters who are intensely focused on their work. Singer co-wrote both Spotlight and The Post, and he served several years as a writer on the television series The West Wing. Singer’s attention to technical detail and Chazelle’s emotionally stirring, at times lyrical, depiction of Armstrong work in tandem to produce a compelling picture. It is one, however, that never quite gives us a satisfying view into Armstrong’s inner turmoil.
The first thing that struck me about the film is its economical storytelling. Chazelle telegraphs in the first few minutes, and with just a few words of dialog, the death of Neil and his wife Janet’s toddler, Karen, due to cancer. This event becomes a potent symbol and storytelling catalyst for Armstrong’s mournful quality throughout the film.
If Chazelle’s rousing La La Land was the modern-day musical equivalent to the work of Gene Kelly and Vincente Minnelli, First Man is a biopic by way of Terrence Malick. That’s only partly hyperbole. There are no CGI dinosaurs here, but Chazelle’s contemplative mood blossoms into multiple passages that eschew dialog and action for solemn reflection. This aesthetic is most powerful in the scenes documenting Armstrong’s family life. The camera hovers between Neil, Janet, and their children in the few stolen moments in which Janet can wrestle her husband away from his all-consuming work.
In one of the few scenes that does give us insight into what makes Armstrong tick, he and Janet share a laugh as he describes some of the science behind a planned space flight. Armstrong’s enthusiasm is palpable as he explains it to Janet. When she gives him a quizzical look that suggests she doesn’t share his excitement, he gives up, shrugging his shoulders and saying he finds it “kinda neat.” “Kinda neat,” Janet teases her husband with a smile, before both of them dissolve into laughter. It’s a masterful stroke of building the loving relationship between the two; one that gives extra emphasis to the moments of conflict when Janet is terrified for her husband’s safety.
We don’t get many of these views into Armstrong’s character. Ryan Gosling – an actor who has made a career out of impenetrable, opaque performances – portrays Armstrong as resolute and stoic. This method puts the character at a distance that at times becomes frustrating, if true to life. Armstrong kept a low profile throughout much of his life, and many confused his reticence to embrace the spotlight with a desire to be a recluse. Gosling, Chazelle, and Singer’s approach to the character does mean the few instances of real insight into him strike with much more power. This is especially true of a touching gesture Armstrong performs in the final minutes of First Man.
Chazelle and his special effects team render every moment the movie spends free of earth’s gravity with a stark and glorious beauty. The famous moon landing, the event to which First Man inexorably builds, is mesmerizing. Taking up the last half-hour or so of the movie, the sequence engenders the feeling of wonder that many of us experience when we contemplate the human species exploring the vastness of space. Chazelle’s camera performs a virtuoso 360° pan as Armstrong takes one small step for a man, but one giant leap for mankind. Justin Hurwitz’s score is appropriately sparse in this sequence – Chazelle lets the complete silence of a perfect vacuum have its moment – but when the soaring soundtrack does enter, it is brilliantly rousing.
If you read me regularly, you most likely have a feel for my politics. Not only do I discuss them openly, but I try to seek out films that take a political stance. I do this to challenge myself and hone my perspective. I also do it, if for nothing else, because movies with something on their mind, political or otherwise, are almost guaranteed to be more interesting than the latest Adam Sandler release. First Man is a bit frustrating in its refusal to take some sort of political stance. The one brief montage that Chazelle and Singer spend on any perspective in opposition to the greatness of the space program is all too brief. It almost feels obligatory.
A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(and Whitey's on the moon)
I can't pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey's on the moon)
Ten years from now I'll be payin' still.
(while Whitey's on the moon)
If not for the montage (and because our educational system is in a shambles) the viewer would never know that simultaneous with the race to put an American on the moon was the fight for black civil rights and the war on poverty, among many other issues. Concomitant with these struggles was the view of many Americans that what they considered wasted money on the space race should have been used to address social ills.
As someone who finds great meaning in exploring our universe, I believe NASA and space exploration are of enormous value. The computer I’m using to write this, as well as the palm-sized device that gives me minute-by-minute access to the world’s collected knowledge, are direct products of the space program. That’s to say nothing of Carl Sagan’s poignant observation that “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” and space exploration is one way to do that.
This is no doubt how Damien Chazelle and Josh Singer also feel. Their zeal to capture Neil Armstrong’s story comes leaping off the screen. First Man is a rousing, if minorly flawed, success of that effort. It pays beautiful tribute to not just an American hero, but to a hero of humanity.
Why it got 4 stars:
- First Man is rousing stuff. Chazelle’s cinematic eye makes for a dazzling story about a soft-spoken but determined hero. Early prediction: this will clean up come awards season.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I wrote about Chazelle’s economical storytelling vis-à-vis the death of the Armstrongs’ daughter. Another good example is three minutes or so of exposition about the space program during the time the movie takes place. It’s a The March of Time style newsreel which serves as a great way for First Man’s audience to slip into the time and place of the movie.
- After a disastrous failure of a launch, Armstrong is present at a press conference in which the journalists want answers about what went wrong. Armstrong refuses to answer their questions, and this dramatizes his character, but also highlights one of the more frustrating things about the movie itself.
- First Man is, without a doubt, Ryan Gosling’s movie. His character is at the center of almost every scene. There are a lot of other really talented actors involved though, and I don’t want to leave them out of the discussion completely. Claire Foy is very good as Janet, although she’s not given much to do. Playing Armstrong’s NASA colleagues are (among others): Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, and Ethan Embry.
- The politics of the moment has oozed its way into the discussion of First Man. In a truly idiotic statement, Trump said he “wouldn’t even want to watch the movie” because it doesn’t include a scene detailing Armstrong and Aldrin planting the American flag on the moon. His implication is that due to the omission, First Man is an Anti-American movie. To be clear, the movie shows the planted flag, just not the act of planting it. Chazelle responded by saying he a) wanted to focus on the moment as a personal one for Armstrong, and b) he wanted to accent the moon landing as a human, not just an American, achievement. Aldrin even got in on the stupidity via a tweet with lots of patriotic hashtags. Long story short, we are a nation of imbeciles.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- Good crowd, except for the guy sitting right next to me who brought his 8-year-old or so daughter. She asked SO. MANY. QUESTIONS. throughout the movie. It was a minor annoyance though. Hopefully she was so fascinated by the movie that she’ll become an astronaut.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Free Solo is not the latest Disney Star Wars cash grab. It’s a documentary about Alex Honnold, a rock climber who attempts what is considered the hardest feat of his sport: to climb the 3000ft. high El Capitan Wall in Yosemite National Park without the aide of any safety gear. Husband and wife filmmaking team Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (known for his own exploits as a climber) direct this National Geographic production.