It’s astonishing, one year short of its golden anniversary, that First Man is only the second major film about the first lunar landing. There have been good movies about the space race – The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 immediately come to mind – but this new film joins the lonely company of the acclaimed 1989 documentary For All Mankind in looking at Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s first steps on the Moon.
And where, for instance, The Right Stuff, is epic and rambunctious, First Man director Damien Chazelle elects instead for intimate and intense. Chazelle’s film focuses almost exclusively on the psychology and personalities of Neil Armstrong and his wife Janet. There are other astronauts in their, um, orbit, but we rarely see them without Neil or Janet on the screen. In what feels like a minor shortcoming, only Buzz Aldrin is especially distinctive among the other figures at NASA (fascinatingly, he comes across as an unfiltered loudmouth, whom Armstrong dislikes.)
First Man opens with Neil in the middle of a rocket’s high altitude test, with scenes that set the tone for the rest of the film. Close-ups and a wandering, jiggling camera impart a claustrophobic sense of danger. Neil remains calm and unfazed through a couple of near-disasters, with only a brief pause to gaze reverently upon the view at 100,000 feet, his eyes loftily above the horizon reflected in his helmet.
In what also becomes typical, the setting abruptly shifts to domestic. One of the very next scenes shows Neil and Janet gazing powerlessly through another window, this time in a hospital radiology suite, where their toddler daughter Karen is being treated for cancer. Sadly, the radiation therapy fails, so when the bereft couple is given an opportunity to move to Houston as part of the astronaut program, both eagerly grasp it as a fresh start.
First Man unfolds over seven years, and even though everyone who isn’t Jim Carrey’s character from Dumb and Dumber knows how this saga will turn out, Chazelle still wrings plenty of suspense out of the buildup to the Moon landing. He has also smartly chosen to go lightly on the special effects until his film’s final act, making the effects so much more special as a result. Instead, sequences like the Gemini mission to link up spacecraft in low Earth orbit are shown nearly always from Neil’s cramped perspective, with only tiny windows exposing the view outside.As the two surviving Armstrong children grow older, we see Neil and Janet’s relationship evolve. With test pilots and astronauts perishing sporadically, Janet’s initial zeal and support turns wary and fearful. Neal, already prone to sublimating his emotions into an engineer’s calculations, represses his own anxiety, becoming surly and withdrawn in the process.
Ryan Gosling underwhelmed me in his last outing with Chazelle, the overrated musical La La Land. (Chazelle’s preceding film Whiplash was vastly superior, and First Man thankfully hews more closely to its kinetic intensity, zippy editing, and physicality.) Given a role where he isn’t required to sing or dance for his paycheck, Gosling delivers another high caliber performance that again shows his versatility, as he’s done in films as distinct as Lars and the Real Girl, Blue Valentine, and Drive. His portrayal of Neil Armstrong, a mechanical expert maladroit with emotion, felt completely believable. I fought back tears the one time he allowed himself to cry, behind a closed door after his daughter’s funeral.
Claire Foy seems to be in everything these days, since her international exposure as young Queen Elizabeth II on Netflix’s The Crown. As Janet Armstrong, she is equally good in showing us the wearying toll exacted from an astronaut’s wife, who must smile for the cameras as she white-knuckles it through live broadcasts of her husband’s adventures.
As First Man winds down, the stakes for the survival of the Armstrong marriage seem almost as high as those for the success of the Apollo 11 mission. Counterintuitively, by diffusing the emotion across these parallel storylines, amazement at the accomplishments by NASA in the 1960s becomes that much stronger.
The screenplay by Josh Singer, co-writer for other intelligent films like Spotlight and The Post, interweaves staged scenes of protest with 1960s footage of commentary opposing American expenditure on space exploration. If you’re like me, you’ll walk out of First Man cheerleading for more appropriations for NASA, now in its 60th year. If Congress can splurge on tax breaks for the super-rich, surely a more enlightened legislature could grow our social safety net while encouraging scientific endeavor.
4 out of 5 stars