The image that most defines the 20th century is that of a man standing on the surface of the moon. The man is astronaut Neil Armstrong, but we can’t see his face as he’s wearing a helmet, the glass of which reflects our collective achievement back at us. When he took a small step, we all took a giant leap with him, and Armstrong instantly became more than a mere man, a symbol. With First Man, director Damien Chazelle takes us inside the famous helmet, stripping away the symbol to tell the story of Armstrong the man.
Chazelle’s film begins in the early 1960s with the death of Armstrong’s three-year-old daughter from a brain tumor, and it suggests this grief played a large role in Armstrong’s determination to get to the moon. It’s the first of several losses suffered by Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), as the film highlights the literal sacrifices made on the journey to the lunar landing, with many of his fellow astronauts perishing during experimental tests and flights. Each loss seems to push Armstrong harder, to ensure their lives weren’t lost in vain, while in the background, politicians and a disillusioned public begin to debate whether John F. Kennedy’s dream is worth pursuing.
In some ways, First Man might be viewed as a companion piece to Pablo Larrain’s Jackie. Both movies are concerned with the legacy of JFK, are studies of professionalism in the face of grief, and are more concerned with using the tools of cinema to investigate the psychology of their subjects than to tell a straight narrative. As such, it can be difficult to grasp the timeline of events portrayed in First Man, as Chazelle keeps his focus strictly honed on Armstrong’s personal involvement, so if you’re looking for a dummies’ guide to the space race, you’ll have to look elsewhere (Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff is an ideal starting point).
As you might expect from a man of his generation, Armstrong is an emotionally withdrawn figure, which makes him a prime subject for a cinematic biopic. Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer never take the easy route of emotional monologues or verbal sparring, entrusting Gosling with the task of illustrating Armstrong’s state of mind visually. The result might be the Canadian star’s finest performance. For much of his screen time only his eyes are visible, and when the visor comes down and we’re left to stare at blackness we realize just how much those eyes have told us.
Gosling’s performance is equalled by that of Claire Foy, as the astronaut’s wife Janet. Many biopics of male figures shoehorn in spouses in a manner that comes off as tokenistic at best, but First Man cleverly uses Janet both as a surrogate for the anxious American public and as a woman who simply wants her children’s father to come home. Watching Janet chewing her nails alone in her living room as her husband sets off on a potentially fatal mission is far more impactful than the usual montages of global crowds gathered around giant screens in city squares.
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With space travel portrayed in numerous movies by some of the most talented of filmmakers, Chazelle faced a tough task of making his sequences stand out, but no previous movie has conveyed just how scary it is to be shot into space inside a tin can. Focusing on the rickety rivets and bolts that hold everything together, First Man reminds us of how limited the technology was a mere six decades after the Wright brothers took to the skies. When Armstrong eventually touches down on the moon itself, any horror gives way to celestial awe, and a small gesture by the astronaut in tribute to his daughter compounds the emotional rush of man’s greatest moment.
4 stars out of 5
Directed by: Damien Chazelle; Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Pablo Schreiber, Christopher Abbot, Kyle Chadler, Ciarán Hinds, Ethan Embry, Corey Stoll, Shea Whigham, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas