With four films behind him, Damien Chazelle’s work nicely divides into two matching pairs. We have his debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a microbudget musical that conveniently couples with his Oscar-winning La La Land in its emphasis on form over function. And we have Whiplash, about an obsessively ambitious jazz drummer who seeks perfection at great personal cost. First Man, which charts Neil Armstrong’s against-many-odds journey to take that giant leap for mankind, could in many ways be considered Whiplash in Space.
Of course, all four of these movies inform each other. With its frenetic editing, Whiplash is almost as much about the form of jazz music, while La La Land’s Ryan Gosling stars here as Armstrong. Still First Man is, above all, a story that both admires and interrogates individual exceptionalism. There is a scene in which a NASA administrator wonders about the cost of the program considering the pilots who have died. Armstrong, who has lost not only colleagues but friends, retorts, “Isn’t it a little late to ask that?”
Unlike Miles Teller’s drummer, who seeks both perfection and glory, Gosling’s Armstrong obsessively dedicates himself to the NASA space program as a form of denial. Very early on, the movie details the excruciating sickness and eventual death of the Armstrongs’ little girl, Karen (Lucy Stafford). In the aftermath, Neil—already a quiet, no-nonsense man—completely withdraws from his family, concentrating all of his time and effort on the space program. At first his wife Janet (Claire Foy) sees this as a healthy distraction, but as the missions become more dangerous and Neil becomes more distant, she sees that his drive to land on the moon has relegated their family, especially their two sons, to being afterthoughts.
Gosling excels at an open sort of stoicism, a way of keeping us at a distance on the surface while also giving us a peek inside. And so he’s a good fit for this take on Armstrong. (The movie is written by Josh Singer, who is adapting James R. Hansen’s biography.) Even better is Foy, who gets more domestic scenes than most of the wives in these sorts of historical space dramas. Foy has some of the quickest eyes in the movies, and the darting they do here frantically communicates the fretting that defines most of Janet’s life. But she’s also more than that. Chazelle and editor Tom Cross cut back and forth between her at home and Neil in flight during one harrowing mission, suggesting that playing referee between two rambunctious boys might just be as challenging as keeping a spacecraft in orbit.
First Man is, above all, a story that both admires and interrogates individual exceptionalism.
What of those flight sequences? Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren emphasize the dizzying discombobulation that these early astronauts experience, to the point that some of the close shaky-cam shots bleed into a blurriness that’s purely abstract. It’s immersive, but also a bit too disorienting in some sequences, where a bit more understanding of the logistics involved (a la Apollo 13) might have been helpful. Still, the film’s opening moments—of Armstrong puncturing the earth’s atmosphere during a test flight—are breathtakingly intense. As he breaks through, the roaring of his craft disappears and the screen goes from blue to black. There’s a moment of blissful peace, and then panic, as he bounces off the atmosphere and can’t navigate his way back toward earth. It’s the first time I’ve “experienced” space travel as being trapped.
First Man concludes with the moon landing, which Chazelle filmed with Imax cameras. There’s a bravura moment of transition as the camera moves out of the lunar module’s door and suddenly—boom!—the screen explodes to its biggest dimensions, at least if you’re in an Imax theater. It’s not just the expansiveness of the landscape that’s astonishing, but also the clarity of the imagery (previous footage was shot in grainy, period-appropriate Super 16).
It’s during this sequence that First Man returns to its main thematic motif: Karen’s death. There are flashbacks to the Armstrong family’s time together when she was still alive, as well as a gesture on Neil’s part that I won’t spoil here. It’s affecting, no doubt, but also a bit reductive. Like many biopics, First Man offers a Rosetta stone that means to explain everything about its subject. Losing a child very likely was the most momentous thing to happen to Armstrong, even more so than landing on the moon. But returning to that event as the key to unlocking his character strikes me as limited. At its best, First Man recognizes that Neil Armstrong was a more complicated man than that, maybe even one we’d never fully understand.