Everybody knows who Neil Armstrong is. He’s the first man to walk on the moon. An American hero. All that jazz. But there was more to Armstrong than that. He was a stoic man who lost a daughter to a brain tumor when she was only two-years-old. Damien Chazelle’s First Man fleshes out the iconic Armstrong, stripping away everything romantic about the man and his mission: to walk on the moon.
Ryan Gosling, re-teaming with La La Land director Chazelle, takes on the difficult task of capturing Armstrong, a stoic, quiet man who kept his feelings buried deep inside him. Sometimes Gosling pulls it off, sometimes he doesn’t. First Man frames Armstrong’s drive having to do with his daughter’s death, and it may have. It’s a great motivational device with a wonderful payoff, though it’s unclear if that truly drove the man. The Crown’s Claire Foy co-stars as Neil’s wife, Janet. Foy does everything she can with the role, which is basically another iteration of the “suffering astronaut’s wife.” Janet keeps the peace around the house, but sadly she doesn’t have much else to do besides be a mom, worry about her husband and occasionally get angry.
First Man is the perfect middle chapter in an unofficial trilogy of space films. It covers the two-man Gemini missions up through the three-man Apollo missions, ending at the moon landing with Apollo 11. Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff depicts the one-man Mercury missions that kicked off things for NASA, then Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 is the book-end. The three films make for a nice, long afternoon of movies covering the space race.
First Man is clearly influenced by The Right Stuff, Apollo 13 and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it eschews the patriotism of the first two (which is almost suffocating in Stuff) in favor of the harsh, dangerous reality of being an astronaut. Chazelle’s framing is tight and claustrophobic, shooting the missions in a you-are-there style, rarely venturing away from what the actual astronauts saw. It isn’t until Apollo 11 that Chazelle opens things up, enjoying the history of the moment while also acknowledging the inherent danger in space flight, and boy is there danger. Every cockpit sounds rickety and unstable, as if they’ll break apart and kill the astronauts at any moment. First Man doesn’t depict Armstrong and his fellow astronauts as great patriots, but more what they really were: men with steel guts willing to strap themselves on top of a giant rocket full of gasoline that could explode at a moment’s notice, incinerating their bodies, all for the chance to go to space, and eventually the moon.
First Man is fantastic, but it isn’t perfect. There are hints of the space race against Russia early on, then that subplot disappears. Public outcry over the number of astronauts who’ve died pops up, only to go away when it isn’t necessary. Both complaints are nitpicky. First Man is a fantastic achievement and one of 2018’s best films.