Nearly as famous as Neil Armstrong’s iconic “one small step for man” line is that fact that the astronaut actually flubbed it: it’s meant to be said as “a man”; otherwise, it ends up meaning the same thing as mankind. Damien Chazelle’s First Man is the feature-length correction, an entrancing reframing of NASA’s ‘60s failures and ultimate triumph distinctly from the perspective of, yes, a man. Yet First Man isn’t a biopic. And it’s not an Apollo 13 style rah-rah space-flight simulator, either. Chazelle avoids the B-grade book report trappings of those genres with a tight combination of both, a multi-stage job that defies the odds to somehow land in a pretty gorgeous sea of tranquility.
The film opens on an intense sequence that sees Armstrong (Chazelle’s La La Land star Ryan Gosling) nearing disaster as he leaves Earth’s atmosphere in an experimental jet. It sets a high bar—already missed by Green Lantern—for Captain Marvel to make its test pilot sequences white-knuckled-awesome. But more so it sets the perspective, rarely if ever leaving the cockpit, for the entire film: gazing right into Gosling’s stoic, only subtly panicked face.
It’s something rarely seen in space-race films—the feeling that this isn’t a dramatized history but a present being lived out by the protagonist. The windows of NASA modules are as small as their cramped cabins, and this is a movie that reflects that with admirable myopia. We at first see the moon close-up only through a tiny triangle, imprisoned in bars of ice; in one test mission, we hear the groans of metal, the inescapable buzz of a stray fly; and there’s never the expected cut back to a cheering Houston control room when the Apollo 11 landing module finally touches down (spoiler: we made it to the moon). In First Man, we’re strapped in with this annoyingly handsome astronaut for his entire anxious ride.
We begin our trip with Armstrong at the early loss of his young daughter, continuing to his enlistment in the NASA program, and on to, well, his suffering several other losses amidst that program. Finally, we’re plunked onto the goddamn moon (again, sorry for the spoiler). The film takes on an almost video game-like structure, matching thrillingly-close, third-person flight sequences with what are basically cut-scenes of his home life. The family sequences come with purposeful regularity, meaning Armstrong’s wife Janet (The Crown’s Claire Foy) is sometimes there in place of her too-absent husband, left to deal with these scenes and their children (and Armstrong’s reporters) as he’s off at what he generously calls “the office.” The film’s juxtaposition of in-Gos’s-face action and at-home drama are certainly at odds, and that’s pretty much the point.
Consequently, though, First Man isn’t much a portrait of Armstrong nor a very thorough history lesson. Gosling’s Armstrong is, fairly one-dimensionally, a quintessential Gosling: pensive, brooding, and so quietly down-to-business that his brief emotional bursts feel like a gift. It’s hard to imagine him as an actual person that didn’t star in Drive. (Foy’s Janet has quite a bit more range—thanks in part to her meatier-by-weight role—and could easily manage a Supporting Actress nod.) Likewise, the details of flight plans, missions, and prominent NASA staff are fairly crude outlines. Space-travel icons like Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber), Ed White (Jason Clarke), and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) are blips in the backdrop of Armstrong’s storied career. In fairness, though, Corey Stoll manages to establish Buzz Aldrin as sort of a dick his handful of lines; and, as Astronaut Activities coordinator Deke Slayton, Kyle Chandler seems right at home as such a Kyle Chandler character. However you’re imagining him is correct.
But, again, this isn’t First Men. First Man is a single man’s memory of a mission, not quite historically accurate in terms of home- or work- life. It’s a dazzling, dizzying, painful, and often claustrophobic remembrance-by-proxy that succeeds as much as the mission it ultimately and literally lands on. Through its framing of an actual human being walking on the moon—and visual framing, with wonderfully naturalistic cinematography that occasionally borders on 8mm home movie—First Man’s biggest criticism may be that it edges too close to the lunar landing: an impressively thrilling high for which NASA is, unfortunately, not providing much sequel material.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Studio: Universal Pictures
Runtime: 138 minutes
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler, Pablo Schreiber, Lukas Haas, Patrick Fugit, Ciarán Hinds