Damien Chazelle’s follow up to the highly successful and almost Best Picture winner La La Land is a biopic about the first man who walked on the moon, Neil Armstrong (played here by Ryan Gosling). Sounds like a conventional route to go down after directing two films that broke the contemporary Hollywood mold. But leave it to Chazelle to take a unique approach to the conventional.
Armstrong is a pensive man. On the surface, emotionally slight. Rarely speaking more than he needs to, he relies more on grit and determination to get his job done. Hired for the Gemini program at NASA, he impresses (and survives) his way into a seat on the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.
During these years, Armstrong also faces troubles at home. Namely, the death of his young daughter is cause for grief. It is a grief he chooses not to express emotionally, which ultimately leads to a distance from his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and other children.
Space exploration films, particularly those based on true events, fall into a familiar formula. They herald the achievement of the astronauts and NASA, as these players act as a stand in for the United States. There is a patriotism that layers these films with a saccharine quality. While this is not an inherently negative depiction, it is one that has been rendered dull from overuse.
Chazelle in First Man ignores the potential jingoism of the Space Race. In fact, there are scenes where he pointedly opposes the notion of the Space Race as the ultimate patriotizing force. We hear President Kennedy’s famous address, meant to ease people’s concerns over the dangerous and expensive Apollo program as well as rally America behind the program made for beating out our Cold War adversary. But we also see depictions of protest, people making pleas to the government that the money could be better used on the ground than in the skies.
While this segment is a short piece of this 141-minute film, its mood translates across the narrative. Armstrong is not drawn as an all-American hero looking to bask in the glory of his actions. There is more of this in the contrasting portrait of Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), which only puts Armstrong’s motivations in sharper relief. In a press conference, while Aldrin jokes around, Armstrong gives direct, brief remarks.
Armstrong, in this lighting, becomes a fascinating portrait. As presented, he is a figure not often seen leading a biopic. He is a workhorse who never asks for anything in return. While this makes him a perfect candidate for the Apollo mission—he is highly knowledgeable and cool under pressure—it blinds him from the problems at home. Chazelle could have dug deeper into this domestic unease, but there is enough of it present in Foy’s performance to make it strikingly apparent.
What comes from following Armstrong is a no-frills look at early space travel, and Chazelle complements Gosling’s reserved performance with a technical construction that is immersive. When we enter a space craft, the audio-visual display becomes something tense and, in at least one scene, harrowing. The camera shakes to the point of complete obscurity. The careful sound design presents rattles and shakes from the hull of the craft, reminding us how flimsy these early rockets were.
Through these techniques, you can feel the contrast between the claustrophobia inside the small rocket and the vast emptiness outside of it. It becomes utterly apparent that at any moment this metal contraption may rupture, propelling astronauts into the blackness of space. The danger can be felt, and it doesn’t go away until the craft reaches sturdy ground.
Chazelle doesn’t over-explain the dangers, either. In moments where a problem presents itself, there is nothing to indicate the potential severity or the exact nature of the danger. Lights and dials indicate enough for us to know how close the danger might be, but otherwise we are left waiting, breath bated, to see what will happen.
In this same vein, it is commendable that Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer choose to keep the majority of the beats of space exploration in space. Where prior films will cut back to Houston, showing the worried or ecstatic looks on the faces of techs so that we understand clearly the trajectory of the mission, First Man contains its drama within the close-quarters walls of the space craft. The drama comes in the form of visual confusion and immersive sound design. Most of these sequences play out without dialogue at all, or dialogue that is muffled.
Because of this, the claustrophobia of space flight stands in stark contrast to the film’s obvious climactic moment. To match the visual contrast—claustrophobia to eerie vastness—the soundtrack drops out as well. We are left with nothing but the moment, an image that comes off Spielbergian in its elegant simplicity and innate emotionality. The resolution that proceeds from this image may lean too heavily into the emotionally cathartic Spielberg design (the film is produced by the man, after all), but the climax remains viscerally satisfying.
First Man may be a lengthy biopic about space travel, but it doesn’t feel like other movies of its ilk. Chazelle succeeds in providing a new experience to a long-running subgenre. The length may be an issue to some—there is some slack to the pacing in the film’s midsection, as Chazelle does attempt to encompass the entirety of the Gemini and Apollo programs up to Apollo 11. But the experiential nature of the flight sequences is raw and glorious, and the climax is worth the wait.
First Man: B
As always, thanks for reading!
Like CineFiles on Facebook for updates on new articles and reviews
Check out my page on Letterboxd
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)