First Man (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Here is a celebration of mankind-defining achievement capable of avoiding a minefield of clichés embedded in the marrow of the movies. There is not one inspirational speech, no slow motion of men in space suits walking toward the camera, not even a single image, however brief, of worried-looking faces on Earth as Neil A. Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), Edwin “Buzz” E. Aldrin Jr. (Corey Stoll), and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) land the Apollo Lunar Module on the moon on July 20, 1969. There is documentary and highly dramatized—commercialized—biographical dramas, and in between lies Damien Chazelle’s technically focused and occasionally affecting “First Man,” more interested in getting as close as possible to what was rather than providing yet another masturbation of American heroism.
Chazelle is back to the precision he exercised in the excellent “Whiplash.” Here, the tone is, like the central figure we follow, Neil Armstrong, quite cold and impersonal. A standard dramatic parabola is not utilized, nor does it need to. Traversing such a path would have opened the door for the expected beats and trappings of the genre. Instead, we follow crucial events in Armstrong’s personal life and professional career between 1962 and 1969, initially as a test pilot and finally as an astronaut who made history. And yet—just because the tone is unsentimental does not mean that it is not first and foremost a human story.
It makes the point of the numerous invaluable sacrifices just so we can go to the moon: millions of taxpayer money, countless hours and tremendous effort put forth by those working in NASA, and, most importantly, irreplaceable human lives lost due to accidents. Watching the picture, I could not help but feel angry—not at the film but at the uninformed or downright ignorant individuals who insist that the 1969 moon landing is a sham. Josh Singer’s sharp and perceptive screenplay broaches the subject of perspective, that it is important for us to reach the moon so that, we, as a species, can gain a new or different way of looking at ourselves, everything around us, and beyond. Before seeing the film, I found that conspiracy theorists who deny the fact that we ever walked on the moon are laughable. After seeing the film, I just felt sorry for them. It made me wish I knew a way to open their minds to both facts and possibilities.
Gosling is in top form as a man who has grown accustomed to hiding his emotions. A case can be made that this characteristic makes Armstrong a great leader, especially in desperate situations when lives are on the line, but this same trait prevents him from being a husband and father who is consistently warm and inviting. Particularly strong about Gosling’s performance is not the character’s lack of apparent emotions (which is agonizing when his wife, played by the equally effective Claire Foy, yearns for him to open up and communicate) but in the way the actor attempts to hide the character’s inner turmoil for the sake of the big picture, of achieving a particular goal so monumental, attaining it would mean a chance for us to try and reach for the next great objective. Gosling disappears into the role; watching him deliver such a calculated performance is such a joy. I admired that he does not attempt to mimic the way Armstrong speaks or Armstrong’s most minute mannerisms and yet he remains thoroughly convincing.
The film, too, provides a terrific aural experience. Spacecrafts with glamorous interiors are nowhere to be found here. In fact, they are so cramped most of the time that being inside one is like having to move around in a coffin. Notice how often close-ups are used when a transport is about to take off or suspended in air as it undergoes gymnastics. Being so close to a person’s face underscores the abundance of noise, especially of metal screeching due to sudden movements, various pressures, and sudden temperature changes. Being inside the spacecraft does, on the one hand, provide a sense of wonder. On the other is a horrifying experience filled with uncertainty; when one alarm goes off, it seems that every other thing that can go wrong does eventually. To say that it is a miracle that we got to the moon in 1969 is not an understatement. Our will to get there, I think, made all the difference.