There can be no doubt concerning the ultimate outcome of Damien Chazelle’s drama about NASA’s 1969 Apollo 11 mission, which made history by putting astronauts on the moon after a series of trial-and-error attempts. It’s implicit in the title, First Man. So it’s a credit to the filmmakers and to lead actor Ryan Gosling’s thoughtfully internalized performance as Neil Armstrong that this sober, contemplative picture has emotional involvement, visceral tension and, yes, even suspense, in addition to stunning technical craft.
The extent to which mainstream audiences will respond to the lengthy film’s unfaltering restraint remains to be seen. But this is a strikingly intelligent treatment of a defining moment for America that broadens the tonal range of Chazelle, clearly a versatile talent, after Whiplash and La La Land. What is perhaps most notable is the film’s refusal to engage in the expected jingoistic self-celebration that such a milestone would seem to demand. At a time when the toxic political climate has cheapened that kind of nationalistic fervor, turning it into empty rhetoric, the measured qualities of Josh Singer’s screenplay, based on James R. Hansen’s 2005 biography of Armstrong, are to be savored.
For the boomer generation, the moon landing of Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin was a formative moment, making good on the promise of John F. Kennedy’s expanded space program following mounting concern that it was an unjustified drain on taxpayer dollars, and to some degree counterbalancing the bitterness fed by Vietnam protests and growing distrust of the government.
As a kid in elementary school in Australia, I still remember the unprecedented sense of importance as the nuns wheeled a big clunky black-and-white television into the classroom for the first time while students and teachers gathered around to watch the landing. Even for those of us too young to understand what the event stood for in terms of progress and the competition against the Russians that had mostly seen America humiliated up to that point, the solemnity and awe of the occasion left a deep impression. That kind of communal sharing in an inspirational moment has long since given way to the more frequent collective experience of witnessing global tragedy, which makes First Man in that sense a welcome throwback.
The movie opens with the first of several white-knuckle sequences as Armstrong mans a solo test flight 140,000 feet off the ground, exiting and then re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere with a malfunctioning bounce on the way back. Chazelle immediately summons echoes of great space-exploration films from The Right Stuff to Gravity with the infernal noise and stomach-churning rattle of what seems like a tin can hurtling around in the void. The fragility of these vessels is a constant throughout. In what will become another recurring motif, there’s also a stirring tranquility in the interlude when Armstrong penetrates the atmospheric barrier. In scenes like this, Chazelle uses the beauty of sudden silence to tremendous effect.
It’s the script’s seamless grounding in the personal, however, that hooks you. Armstrong is depicted as a humble man, not a glory hound or daredevil in the usual heroic screen mode. His intensely private nature is compounded by the crippling loss of his infant daughter Karen to a brain tumor before her third birthday while Armstrong is working at an aeronautics base in Southern California. His hands-on attitude during her treatment swiftly suggests the mindset of the engineer, approaching every problem methodically. When the solution proves elusive, a part of Neil seems to close off forever, even from his loving wife, Janet.
The latter is played by Claire Foy in an affecting performance that gracefully sidesteps cliche as she walks the line between being emotionally supportive and showing her own solid backbone and forthright, questioning nature.
After that shattering loss in the movie’s opening 15 minutes, Armstrong applies to a NASA program seeking pilots with engineering experience for Project Gemini. “It’s a fresh start,” says Janet of the move to Houston. “It’ll be an adventure.” Singer’s script renders the aeronautics jargon compact and accessible, providing a crash primer in this decisive phase of 1960s American space exploration. There’s also low-key humor in the flight simulation training and rocket physics classes as secondary characters take shape. The Armstrongs form a warm friendship with fellow astronaut Ed White (Jason Clarke, terrific) and his wife, Pam (Olivia Hamilton), as well as Elliot See (Patrick Fugit); the fate of those two men considerably heightens the human stakes of the drama.
First-rate actors like Kyle Chandler and Ciaran Hinds lend their customary gravitas to authority figures at NASA, and Corey Stoll has droll moments as the bluntly opinionated Aldrin, who keeps a sufficient lid on the showboating to allow him to remain likable. But the large, predominantly male ensemble generally works more as a cohesive unit than as individual characters.
The film’s tension comes from the awareness, every step of the way, that the setbacks and failures are what count for the American press and public, with the majority seeing only the cost in lives and multibillion-dollar funding. Opposition is voiced to powerful effect in a sharp sequence cut to Gil Scott-Heron reciting his poem Whitey on the Moon, which weighs the space program against poverty and racial inequality in bitingly corrosive terms.
The missions themselves are deftly handled set pieces, with tentative triumphs often followed by potentially fatal glitches that call on Armstrong, in particular, to show cool-headed quick thinking in a crisis. The historical footnote of a fatal cockpit fire that claimed the lives of three astronauts during a Cape Canaveral test provides a moving dramatic marker.
But the domestic scenes often are just as effective, notably Foy’s simmering rage when Janet insists, on the eve of the Apollo 11 launch, that Neil talk to his sons about the possibility of his not returning. When he reluctantly concedes and sits down with them, his words are no less carefully chosen and unemotional than when he addresses the media at prelaunch briefings. The unspoken potential tragedy hanging over the scene is deepened immediately after, when Hinds' character rehearses a speech to be delivered in the event that the mission is unsuccessful.
Gosling downplays his natural charisma here to portray a man simply intent on doing a job, approaching it with the utmost seriousness and without ego. Armstrong shows zero willingness to consider what he’s doing in any self-aggrandizing historical context, his taciturn demeanor proving frustrating to the press, which wants uplifting soundbites. That makes the characterization almost antithetical to the standard Hollywood conception of a historically significant figure of this type.
Instead, Gosling pulls you in on an intimate level, whether Armstrong is tackling life-or-death situations midmission or simply staring at the moon from his backyard, as if the distant image somehow holds the secret to a successful landing. It’s a subdued, almost self-effacing performance that nonetheless provides the drama with a commanding center.
Reteaming with his cinematographer on La La Land, Linus Sandgren, Chazelle uses handheld camera and quick cutting by editor Tom Cross to convey the pressures at home and in space. But the technique is never flashy or distractingly jittery, instead mirroring the tight control evident elsewhere.
The tendency to favor focused understatement over showiness carries through into the period work of production designer Nathan Crowley and costumer Mary Zophres. And the quiet majesty of the drama owes much to the infinite moods of Justin Hurwitz’s masterful score, from tender, melodic passages through echoes (intended?) of vintage Jerry Goldsmith to a rare burst of full-thrust power when the lunar surface is first glimpsed up close. The archival version of that visual is embedded in countless memories, as Armstrong’s footprint marks the first human contact with the moon’s powdery surface. The magic of Chazelle’s fine film is that it allows us to share directly in that momentous achievement.
Production companies: Temple Hill, Perfect World Pictures
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Christopher Abbott, Ciaran Hinds, Olivia Hamilton, Pablo Schreiber, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, Ethan Embry, Brian D’Arcy James, Cory Michael Smith, Kris Swanberg
Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenwriters: Josh Singer, based on the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen
Producers: Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen, Isaac Klausner, Damien Chazelle
Executive producers: Steven Spielberg, Adam Merims, Josh Singer
Director of photography: Linus Sandgren
Production designer: Nathan Crowley
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Music: Justin Hurwitz
Editor: Tom Cross
Visual effects supervisor: Paul Lambert
Casting: Francine Maisler
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Rated PG-13, 142 minutes