Review: 'First Man'

Thursday, October 11, 2018
A still from 'First Man'.

The Agony and the Ecstasy

2018 / USA / 141 min. / Dir. by Damien Chazelle / Opens in wide release on Oct. 12, 2018

by:
Andrew Wyatt

The 1950s - 70s heyday of the United States’ manned space program has been a relatively successful (if strangely infrequent) source of compelling cinematic stories, inspiring both rousing dramas (The Right Stuff [1983], Apollo 13 [1995]) and engrossing documentaries (For All Mankind [1989], In the Shadow of the Moon [2007]). The saga of America’s feverish mid-century push into the unforgiving void of space is so fascinating – and so improbable – all on its own, a filmmaker could be forgiven for taking the easy route and leaning into the story’s inherent grandeur and triumphalism. This makes it especially impressive that director Damien Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer have taken such a non-intuitive approach with First Man, a harrowing, brooding dramatization of Neil Armstrong’s journey from experimental aircraft pilot to historical immortality. Armstrong, after all, was a notoriously private individual, a man whose humility, reticence, and level-headedness – his terminal blandness, one might say – were precisely the qualities that prompted NASA to select him for the command of the Apollo 11 mission.

Such characteristics are not normally the stuff of captivating cinematic heroes. However, rather than crafting a rip-roaring space adventure that would sharply clash with his subject’s personality, Chazelle has instead fashioned his film around Armstrong’s renowned opacity. Admittedly, Singer’s screenplay indulges in some glib armchair psychoanalysis. The death of the Armstrongs’ two-year-old daughter Karen by a malignant tumor is portrayed as the seminal event in the man’s personal life, a bottled-up dose of radioactive grief he figuratively and literally carries to the moon’s surface. For the most part, however, First Man depicts Armstrong as an inhumanly stoic individual, possessing both adamantine focus and a sphinxlike inscrutability. Chazelle has accordingly constructed a defiantly clenched and suffocating story that harmonizes with that characterization. In the director’s conception, the space race becomes a cramped, hellish ordeal of rattling terror, physical agony, and outright blood sacrifice. When the audience is allowed glimpses of the humbling majesty of space, it's mostly in fleeting faceplate reflections and though tiny, fogged-up windows – until the film’s breathtaking climax, when the weight of all that suffering is expelled in a rush with the opening of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module hatch.

Crucial to the film’s success is its leading man, Ryan Gosling, who invests this fictionalized iteration of Armstrong with an almost synthetic tranquility that would come off as unfeeling, were the actor not so skilled at suggesting the bruised, hunched human resolve underneath the chilliness. It’s the sort of restrained-yet-cavernous mode of performance that is Gosling’s forte, also evidenced by his masterful turn as the android anti-hero in last year’s Blade Runner 2049. His Armstrong is quietly fervent, unfailingly modest, and occasionally prickly at the intrusion of something so impractical as human interaction. When fellow astronaut Ed White (Jason Clarke) approaches a visibly distressed Armstrong, who is standing alone in the nocturnal gloom of his backyard after a colleague’s funeral, Gosling quietly glowers, “What makes you think I’m out here because I want to talk?”

Most of the time, it’s Armstrong’s long-suffering wife Janet (Claire Foy, excellent in the typically thankless “worried spouse” role) who is obliged to decode her husband’s stony silence and endure his buttoned-up remoteness. These become more pronounced following their daughter’s death early in the film, a loss that Armstrong never again discusses with his wife. He prefers to secret it away much like Karen’s beaded infant bracelet, which he places with moist-eyed finality in a desk drawer on the day of her burial.

First Man never uncritically lionizes the stripe of dutiful, taciturn American masculinity that Armstrong embodies. On the eve of the Apollo 11 mission, all of Janet’s resentments at his emotional inaccessibility come pouring out in a cold, spitfire torrent that carries the sting of truth. However, the film also illustrates that the qualities that made Armstrong an at-times-difficult husband, father, and friend also made him the right man for an unprecedented job. Chazelle often contrasts the man’s reserved professionalism with the voluble boorishness of fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), a characterization that feels facetious, albeit germane to the film’s proposition: Armstrong’s all-business distaste for the spotlight made him an ideal choice for mission commander.

Except for a few flickering, impressionistic flashbacks, First Man unspools in a scrupulously chronological manner, following Armstrong from a test flight in a X-15 hypersonic aircraft in April 1962 through the immediate aftermath of the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969. Chazelle’s approach to the story is akin to a nitty-gritty procedural, wherein engineering jargon is rattled off with a naturalistic absence of explanation. John Sturges’ similarly wonky but comparatively turgid 1969 feature Marooned is an obvious touchstone, and viewers who are not space exploration junkies or NASA history enthusiasts may be a bit lost at times. The director tightly constrains the action to Armstrong’s perspective, with supplemental snippets depicting events as Janet experiences them – often from the vantage point of the family’s living room, where a squawk box relays the audio feed from Mission Control.

Accordingly, First Man is not so much an exhaustive dramatization of the U.S. space program in the 1960s as it is an attempt to conjure the subjective experience of Armstrong’s journey. Appropriately enough, the film focuses primarily on the missions that he experienced firsthand: the near-catastrophic Apollo 8 and the momentous Apollo 11. Tellingly, Chazelle also makes time for those incidents that resulted in the deaths of Armstrong’s colleagues, such as the demise of Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) in a training jet crash in 1966, or the disastrous Apollo 1 launch rehearsal that claimed three astronauts’ lives in 1967.

This emphasis on loss, grief, and the sheer lethality of the NASA program is of a piece with First Man’s approach in depicting space exploration, which in Chazelle’s conception has the dread-drenched sensibility of a horror film. The director places the viewer directly inside the claustrophobic confines of the Gemini and Apollo capsules, where the astronauts are strapped in like death-row convicts and their field-of-view is limited to a bewildering array of analog dials, switches, and gauges. Liftoff and re-entry are presented here as blind gauntlets of enervating noise and vibration, akin to riding a rickety roller coaster into the depths of hell itself. There’s little room for awe underneath the roar of millions of pounds of exploding rocket fuel and the constant, nerve-fraying squeal of metal. Chazelle often flashes in extreme close-up on individual screws and seams in the spacecraft assembly, as if to emphasize the paltry, mundane materials that separate the crew from certain death.

In First Man, nothing about the space race seems measured, thoughtful, or scrupulous. Indeed, it feels rather like madness: a careening scramble from one wobbly Hail-Mary gambit to the next, with the charred bodies of good men strewn in its wake. “You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood,” Janet scoffs in disgust at one point to Astronaut Office chief Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler). “You don’t have anything under control.” Whatever nobility exists in NASA’s endeavors feels distant and immaterial when, for example, the Apollo 8 capsule inexplicably malfunctions and begins to tumble end-over-end towards Earth at blackout speeds.

Proximally speaking, Cold War anxiety over Soviet achievements in both unmanned and manned space flight is what lends the film’s events such life-or-death urgency. However, Armstrong himself points to a more expansive, philosophical view of NASA’s mission during his first interview to join the Astronaut Corps. Asked why he thinks manned space exploration is vital, he responds matter-of-factly that it presents humankind with the opportunity for a new perspective, regarding its own history and its place in the cosmos. This sentiment is echoed in the film’s sharp stylistic shift during the climactic Apollo 11 mission. For most of First Man’s running time, Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren employ grainy 16 mm and 35 mm physical film to give the feature a vintage look. They rely on jittery, vérité close-ups to an almost perverse extent, given that this film is ostensibly about outer space. During the moon landing and walk, however, the filmmakers switch to the sharper, widescreen majesty of IMAX 70 mm film, reflecting the epochal change in human history that attended Armstrong’s first step into the lunar dust. It’s heavy-handed as hell, and it works wonderfully.

First Man categorically embraces the view that setting foot on the moon is one of the pinnacles (if not the pinnacle) of human achievement, and as Gosling’s Armstrong stands alone on the rim of a lunar crater, regarding what Aldrin memorably termed the “magnificent desolation”, it’s easy to imagine the swell of uncanny awe he must have felt. For all the film’s nerve-wracking, unromantic verisimilitude, First Man has a starry-eyed, even old-fashioned ethos that heralds space exploration as an innately worthwhile endeavor. Occasionally, Chazelle’s attempts to convey this point feel clumsy and tone-deaf, as when he contrasts the rock-ribbed determination of NASA’s astronauts and engineers with an afroed rabble-rouser whose protest poetry laments the expense of putting “whitey on the moon” when the U.S. has so many earthbound problems.

Overall, however, First Man feels less like a triumphant paean to America’s past accomplishments than a reaffirmation of the intrinsic value of human struggle, in whatever form it takes. Although Chazelle’s jazz Passion play Whiplash (2014) might seem light-years apart from his latest feature, both are absorbed with the allure of the (seemingly) impossible. First Man’s privileging of the forbidding reality of the space program – every drop of toil, sorrow, and failure that preceded Armstrong’s one small step – points to a kind of anti-triumphant masochism, a belief that the destination is less important than the grueling misery of the journey. While wandering his post-mission quarantine quarters and marveling at the suddenly-surreal banality of his surroundings, Armstrong’s attention is drawn to an archival clip of John F. Kennedy on television. Undeniably on-the-nose and yet still stirring, the late President’s renowned 1962 words could be First Man’s thesis statement: “Why, some say, the moon? […] We choose to go to the moon… not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard.”

Rating: B+