OnScreen Review: "First Man"

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Ken Jones

  • Chief Film Critic

Biopics are frequently hagiographies, making saints out of their subjects often despite their flaws. Damien Chazelle’s First Man is not in the hagiography business. It’s a straightforward narrative about how mankind got to the moon. That journey culminated on July 20, 1969, but it began nearly a decade earlier, when President John F. Kennedy announced his desire to see a US astronaut on the moon by the end of the decade. That journey is told through the life of Neil Armstrong, the first man who landed on the moon. The film tracks the highs and lows of both Armstrong and NASA on this journey to the moon.

The film opens with Neil Armstrong, portrayed by Ryan Gosling, soaring through the skies as a test pilot in 1961, briefly leaving the atmosphere, briefly losing control of his plane, and managing to maneuver his way back to earth. What stands out here and throughout the film is the noise of the action, like a category five hurricane is happening around him. More than the shakiness of the picture from everything rattling around, how Chazelle puts the audience not just inside the cockpit with the astronauts but often inside their helmets, and the graininess of the film that is meant to evoke home video tapes from the 60s, the cacophony of sound from these rockets threatens to drown out everything. This is juxtaposed with the silence and serenity of space. In a way, there is a parallel to this juxtaposition in the script during his training to become an astronaut where Neil finds it amusing that some of the aspects of piloting in space run counter to his instincts as a pilot on earth, hammering home that there is a vast difference between what happens inside and outside the barrier of Earth’s atmosphere. 

In fact, First Man is a film full of barriers, some broken and some impenetrable. NASA is an organization that pushes the limits of man. Spurred on by Kennedy’s vision, they spend billions of dollars to achieve that goal. Landing on the moon pushes the limits of what mankind is capable of. Figuring out how to get there and back safely pushes the limits of the scientific minds and everyone involved in the project, as well as pushing the barriers of known science. And it pushes the limits of the human body, as pilots like Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), Ed White (Jason Clarke), Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), Michael Collins (Lukas Haas), Gus Grisson (Shea Whigham) and others push themselves in flight simulators to the point of passing out. It costs some of those men their lives, making widows out of wives, a growing and palpable fear for Neil’s wife Janet (Claire Foy). But it also helps save lives during the Gemini 8 mission because Armstrong was able to keep his cool and miraculously not lose consciousness as the Gemini was spinning out of control.

The sheer cost of the NASA mission entrenched some of the tensions that served as barriers between people in this country in 60s. With billions spent on the program by the government, with the Vietnam War also going on concurrently, and racial divisions are threatening to rip the country apart, it’s fair to ask if billions being spent to go into space is the best use of taxpayer resources. At one point, the protest song “Whitey On the Moon” is being performed on the outskirts of Cape Canaveral.

That money also leads to a lot of governmental and public scrutiny, which the film makes clear that NASA is also well-aware of as they frequently seek to limit bad press and minimize the damage when things go bad. NASA has an image to uphold and project at almost any cost, whether that means cutting the radio feed to Janet’s living room when things get hairy during the Gemini 8 mission or when they call Neil to usher their people out of the White House when things go awry during the Apollo 1 pre-launch test.

There is also the Cold War between the US and the USSR. The space race is a part of that, and the US is far behind when Armstrong joins NASA, as Deke Slayton (Kyler Chandler) points out when he first announces their intentions to aim for the moon. The specter that the Soviets will beat them there may not be as strong as the personal motivations portrayed in the film, but it does linger over everything, highlighted by the news of the Soviets performing the first spacewalk ruining a party that Armstrong and the others in the program were having before Gemini 4.

Lastly, there are the personal barriers of Armstrong himself. For much of the film, he is a reserved and emotionally distant figure to his wife Janet (Claire Foy), their children, and his friends and co-workers. Armstrong is presented to the audience as a symbolic of the 60s American male, for good and bad. He is the courageous, exemplary pilot that becomes a national hero, but he is also the man who does not know how to properly talk about his feeling and process some of his emotions. It’s strongly suggested that the death of his two-year-old daughter plays a big role in this and that he cocoons himself in a bit after that, even from his wife at times. After abruptly leaving the wake of his close friend, Janet mentions to Ed White and his wife that they attended four funerals in one year when Neil was a test pilot in California. By the end of the film, there is a literal divide separating Neil and Janet.

With Armstrong being someone who was something of a quiet and reserved person who did not seek the spotlight, that leaves room for others to project onto him. Similarly, I think there is a lot of room for people to project their impressions onto the film. The faux outrage over the film eschewing the depiction of the American flag being planted is shown to be the patently absurd political ploy it always was. On the flip side of that, other people are depicting the film as one that celebrates the “good ol’ days.” Neither of these feels right to me. Armstrong was a figure that looked to space, but his feet were planted on the ground in practicality and reality. “We have to fail down here so we don’t fail up there” is a line that stands out in the film.

Some, though not all, of these barriers are overcome with the actual Apollo moon landing. It’s a thrilling experience seeing Armstrong and crew arrive at the moon and make their descent to land. The film shifts here, too, as the graininess of the pictures gives way to the crystal-clear picture of IMAX cameras (this is a film that deserves to be seen in IMAX). Chazelle’s care in telling the story of journey makes its completion all the more satisfying. Everything that takes place on the moon is bravura filmmaking from a talented director.

First Man is another impressive film from director Damien Chazelle. And given that so much of the film is centered around an emotionally reserved Armstrong, Chazelle saves the emotional wallop for when Armstrong is on the lunar surface in a quiet moment that is expertly acted by Gosling, perfectly encapsulating that it is one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars