There is a conspiracy theory that the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon was staged. Contrarians pointed to Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey as evidence America had the means to fake such a feat in the Hollywood Hills or Area 51. Skeptics argue how absurdly difficult it was to send an earthling to the moon. They have a bit of a point. Whiplash and La La Land director Damien Chazelle’s biopic-esque project so methodically portrays the harrowing and seemingly insurmountable challenge of our first moon landing. America almost failed. Had that been the case, if they wanted to create a convincing smoke and mirrors, hire Chazelle and let him shoot in IMAX 65mm and an aspect ratio of 1.43:1. It really is out of this world.
First Man, based on the biography of Neil Armstrong written by James R. Hansen features Ryan Gosling (La La Land) as the historical figure. Gosling is a scholar of the thousand-yard stare and stoic school of acting. His degree is used to great effect here as Armstrong is about as effusive as the glistening moon he loves so much. Dare to dream intensity is an affinity of Chazelle’s. With Whiplash, it was raw and energized as jazz student Andrew (Miles Teller) strived for perfection under his abusive instructor (J.K. Simmons.) With La La Land we saw a spectrum of brightness as two ambitious L.A. denizens crossed paths with one another in their respective journies. This time around, it’s all too quiet.
Armstrong and wife Janet Shearon (Claire Foy) are deeply affected by the loss of their young daughter Karen, who died of a brain tumor while Armstrong was still at Edwards Air Force Base. The loss of Karen acts as the center of gravity for much of the film; emotional fuel for Armstrong to inevitably reach the moon. Intentional or unintentional, Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong is telling of how many men dealt (and still deal) with grief, frustration, and pressure. Armstrong mourns in private. He doesn’t talk openly with anyone about the woeful wounds he suffers in his personal and professional life.
On the outside, Amstrong wears a brave front. He’s calm and literally calculating during close encounters with death. The opening sequence, for instance, will jostle you as cinematographer Linus Sandgren crafts the first-person experience so we can all feel what it’s like to be in a malfunctioning North American X-15 test plane high up above. If the moon landing was uncharted territory for our real-life history, then Chazelle and Sandgren’s point of view and physical perspective are uncharted territory for the space-genre. With so many excellent historical space films like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff, First Man sets itself apart by creating a visceral claustrophobic environment. The ratling clicking and clanking of NASA’s space crafts eerily sound of an upward rollercoaster right before rushed dropoff. Now just imagine no seatbelts, a blindfold, and the durability of a tin can and you have some semblance of what the NASA astronauts were going through. On one hand, it’s bleak in the discomfort of it all — watching the very inherent dangers displayed won’t make anyone want to be an astronaut. On the other, it is a very real and inspired look into the harshness and demands of the job. They weren’t just seemingly defying gravity, they were courageously defying death at almost every turn.
Foy does a lot of heavy lifting — carrying the uncommunicated burdens of her husband. Every fiber of tension and worry is visible on her body as Armstrong dances more and more with danger. Her interpretation of the character may be too aloof, too cold for some viewers — it’s not easy to get an accurate read on what her and Neil’s chemistry was actually like. When Neil can’t bring himself to have a candid conversation with their two young boys about his possible death during Apollo 11, Foy’s explosive pent-up frustration makes for a standout scene.
Much like space and the moon itself, there is a fascinating but lonely view First Man gives us. The visuals are stunning and when Armstrong and company finally reach the moon, Chazelle and Sandgren pull out all the stops in making sure we are right there with them. But it’s not blazingly glorified in the slightest. Controversy plagued this film before release because of the American flag moment being absent. While it is a real event and there is a sense of American pride as we reached the finished line before the Soviets, Chazelle’s story is less so about the American achievement or heroics and more about Armstrong. He didn’t really consider himself a hero and his words on the moon prioritized mankind over any particular nation. The scene we get instead is much more rewarding as Armstrong’s grief over Karen and his ambitious galactic goal dovetails. There are moments here and there where we get to see Gosling flash a brief smile, but there is a looming hollowness to the film by the end. It doesn’t feel like a triumph, and maybe for Armstrong, that’s more or less how it felt. The Apollo 11 team did make it, but he’s not throwing some huge celebration afterward. He did what he felt like he needed to during a darker moment in his life.
Not everyone lived to land on the moon as history and the film can tell you. Apollo 1’s launch test resulted in a cabin fire taking the lives of Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee. Losses like those made many question whether the space program was worth having. The film just barely touches public outcry over the expensive financial and human costs. The story spans about a decade from Neil’s recruitment into NASA to the well-foreshadowed denouement. There is little dialogue so the film leans on the minuscule expressions of Gosling and Foy instead. It can feel like a drag and with a runtime of two and a half hours, how much do we really need in close-ups of sad Claire Foy? Why some of those close-ups required shaky cam instead of steady, I don’t know. Even with a great cast like Corey Stoll projecting Buzz Aldrin as a blowhard or Kyle Chandler as square-jawed, corn-fed astronaut chief Deke Slayton, Armstrong is too lost in own world to explore those interactions.
First Man isn’t a traditional narrative of a story that’s been told so many times over. It isn’t uplifting like other films of its genre are, but it still manages to take off in a direction never before seen.