It’s kinda neat
The non-controversy surrounding Damien Chazelle‘s First Man shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows how political parties have appropriated art into their agendas since the dawn of time. Of course they’d glom onto the decision to ignore the lunar flag planting as some “un-American” thing rather than read the script, watch the movie, or ask for clarification—options which would have all supplied insight into the reality that Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer aren’t telling the story of the moon landing. That goal might be the driving force behind what’s onscreen, but the actual subject is Neil Armstrong. More than an astronaut and engineer, he was a man surrounded by unspeakable tragedy. This movie is about a father dedicated to discovering the unknown in order to grieve his young daughter.
So while the opening scene is this massive set piece augmented by the sensory overload of sight and sound as Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) flies towards the Earth’s atmosphere at risk of bouncing off it, our takeaway isn’t that he kept his head to survive a near-death experience once his inability to descend without venting fuel is acknowledged. No, what we must remember is Matthew Glave‘s character telling Brian d’Arcy James‘ Joseph Walker to ground him for being too distracted. Rather than receive his report and discover what happened and why Armstrong did what he had to do to land safely, this member of the military brass was ready to kill a career because a dying child was a distraction. And for some, little Karen’s death would’ve signaled that end.
Based on James R. Hansen‘s book, Singer’s script very intentionally focuses upon Armstrong’s psychological state after burying his child. It shows the tenacity he had to ignore that grounding order and apply to NASA’s astronaut program instead. It shows his astute mind for the math needed to beat the Russians to the moon as well as his quiet yet personable demeanor to win over “eggheads” like himself (Patrick Fugit‘s Elliott See) and the “jock-types” like Ed White (Jason Clarke). And more than just his work in the Gemini and Apollo programs is his role at home with wife Janet (Claire Foy) and two sons. He’s a man of immense love and few words that eventually grow fewer once the danger of his job becomes too much to ignore.
We watch certain things trigger his depression whether it be a swing-set Karen had years ago or the recent death of a close friend. Yes we see the tragedy that befell White, Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), and Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith)—something anyone who’s ever driven through Amherst, NY knows thanks to a trio of streets named in memorial. Yes we experience Armstrong’s and Dave Scott’s (Christopher Abbott) harrowing ordeal to be the first to dock onto another independent craft in space with all the shaking and screeching metal necessary to drown out their words and find ourselves in that tin can with them. But they’re merely stepping stones towards Apollo 11, moments reminding him why he mustn’t quit. He must still find Heaven to say goodbye.
Chazelle returns to the more independent storytelling sensibility of Whiplash here. It’s easy to compare First Man to that breakthrough feature as both are dealing with a man under pressure to be the best while getting lost within the vacuum such a life choice creates. We are thrust into every claustrophobic vessel right alongside Armstrong, appreciating the thrill, excitement, and fear that go into allowing oneself to be shot into the sky on the back of a bomb. These launches are physically and emotionally draining with the purpose of better understanding the character rather than overshadowing him with his dramatic setting. Hearing twisting metal cut to absolute silence against space’s backdrop might prove a religious experience for you, but it all remains tethered to Armstrong’s personal journey regardless.
It’s easy to accept his drive forward despite the deaths piling up around him because he refuses to let their lives be sacrificed in vain. Nothing we see onscreen is therefore trivial. Singer’s script has no problem fast-forwarding in time from one scene to the next without notice because that which he’s skipping isn’t relevant to his goal of getting into Armstrong’s head. Those moments when we see Karen are thus markers as far as his mental state is concerned. They rattle him awake, forcing him to make his exit and be alone to deal with the feelings that conjured her whether doing so in isolation is healthy or not. We wouldn’t blame Armstrong for giving up as a result, so we appreciate his willingness to keep going.
While these poignant sequences laying his tortured psyche bare are the most effective and memorable of the whole, however, there’s also some wonderfully pointed humor and situational gaffes to temper dramatics. A big portion comes courtesy of Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin. If it wasn’t already established that his nickname stemmed from a sister mispronouncing “brother” as “buzzer,” you could watch him here and assume it was given because he’s such a “buzzkill” of a smug pedant. Aldrin is only in a few scenes, but each has him “saying what everyone’s thinking” in order to turn an already tense room tenser. You could almost label these examples unnecessary except that his lack of tact allows Armstrong’s leadership and respect to shine through his otherwise introverted solitude.
These somber quips back at Aldrin and his famous first words on the moon are reactionary. If he weren’t forced to say something in both instances he probably wouldn’t. The same goes for his family too. There’s this great exchange between a frustrated Janet and avoidant Neil wherein she refuses to let him ignore his responsibilities as a father to children that may never see him again. It’s heartbreaking to watch because we know the pain of missing his daughter is firmly at the back of his fears. He’s so wrapped up in feeling sorry for himself that he forgets those boys are in the same shoes as he was. They’re waiting for an inevitable death they hope will be postponed but feel is coming just the same.
Chazelle impressively depicts this struggle throughout, but he goes above and beyond during the climactic lunar landing. Not only does he transport us there with crystal clear high-definition imagery filling the entirety of the IMAX screen (the rest of the film is a soft, grainy widescreen mimicking the spectacular period setting), but he also crosscuts 16mm footage of Armstrong and his daughter playing to really highlight the achievement’s importance on a personal level. All the pent-up emotion he bottled to go back to work after the funeral pours out, these many long years of work serving to exorcise his own demons just as America expelled its Cold War hostility in one glorious instant. The moment’s hugeness ultimately tore it from Armstrong’s hands. Now it’s finally been given back.
courtesy of TIFF