Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong in his journey from test pilot to moon lander in First Man, and between The Right Stuff, Gravity, Hidden Figures, etc., you could be forgiven for thinking cinema already had this subject matter pretty well locked down. And yet, the draw of humans sitting atop giant rockets and exploding into outer space remains undiminished from overexposure. Landing on the moon is probably the craziest, bravest, most pointless, and inspiring thing we’ve ever done as a species, and all thanks to the Cold War, one of the silliest. (It’s amazing the things humans will endure when we’re trying to one-up each other.)
First Man, based on James R. Hansen’s biography of Neil Armstrong, adapted by Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post), tells a lot of the same story as The Right Stuff (Audible recently released a new version of the audiobook read by Dennis Quaid, which I highly recommend), only with the focus winnowed to a few key points.
One is society’s demand that the astronauts not just face death as the avatars for our societies, but that they also articulate for us the feeling of staring death in the face. We need them not just to succeed, but to tell us what’s going through their heads as they play a kind of Russian Roulette for science and country after watching so many of their colleagues splatter onto asphalt or get burnt to a crisp. Of course, open, honest introspection is an impossible ask for men who’ve been chosen precisely for their uncanny ability to sublimate self-reflection in order to make cold calculations in a high-stress environment. Men who need to be able to calmly run through their flight checklists and think critically, rationally, in order to find the solution that will keep them from being cooked alive even as their bodies are knocking around inside a tin can like ice in a cocktail shaker. Which is to say, you’d have to be a little nuts.
In First Man, this paradox comes to a head in a brilliant scene between Gosling’s Armstrong and his wife, Janet, played by The Crown‘s Claire Foy. On the eve of one of his flights, she shakes and screams, demanding that Neil acknowledge what he’s asking of her, to say something about the possibility of his never coming back. Of course, this is the exact thought he’s trying so hard to avoid, and his only outward reaction to her is a slight pulsing of the vein underneath his right eye. Inwardly though, you can tell he’s thinking “Wait, you want me to acknowledge the possibility of my imminent death so you can feel better?”
That Chazelle and Singer choose to have Armstrong convey this wordlessly, and that Gosling and Foy are good enough actors to pull it off, are what make First Man worth watching. There’s a real emotional depth that make it more than just a rehash or a hoary hagiography.
The other aspect of the story that First Man hones in on, which was more or less relegated to a footnote in The Right Stuff, is the death of the Armstrong’s two-year-old daughter, Karen, from a brain tumor. The loss of a child, oddly, has become a theme in other space movies, and between First Man, Gravity, and Arrival, you wonder if anyone even goes to space unless they’ve first suffered through the death of a child. In Interstellar it was a spouse, and I can’t remember if Bruce Willis’s character in Armageddon was a widower, though he certainly fit the trope. First Man, of course, is non-fiction, and depicts one of the most heavily publicized events of the 20th century. Which paradoxically makes the ultimate space movie cliché in this case that much more relevant. Is Neil Armstrong’s story the melancholy astronaut urtext? Is Neil Armstrong the Velvet Underground of grief-stricken spacemen? How many stories did this influence?
In a way, the fact that we should be tired of hearing this story yet still demand it fill in the tiniest gaps only proves its relevance. It inspires a kind of renewing self-reflection: why do we like hearing this story so much? We already saw a whole movie just about the mathematicians who made the moon landing possible in Hidden Figures. As my friend I took to the screening joked, “They should’ve just called this one ‘Figures.'”
As much as we can discuss narrative and storytelling, probably the biggest draw of any space movie is the eye candy, and First Man delivers, partly by focusing on the parts you might not expect. You expect, to some extent, blue skies and broad vistas, the vastness of space, in an astronaut movie. Instead, First Man focuses on the human aspects, the claustrophobia of being strapped inside a tiny pod atop a massive explosive. It was such a vast undertaking, yet those who witnessed it firsthand had to do so through fishbowl helmets and tiny porthole windows. First Man captures this contrast beautifully, switching from warm, grainy 16 mm to crystal clear IMAX for the lunar landing sequences. It demands to be seen on a big screen, preferably IMAX.
It’s hard to find fault with much Chazelle does here, and the casting and acting are especially perfect, from Gosling and Foy on down to Shea Wigham as Gus Grissom, and Corey Stoll playing a delightfully tone deaf Buzz Aldrin, the bull in an emotional china shop. Kyle Chandler is there too, playing one of those Kyle Chandler types we love so much.
If anything, Chazelle falls too in love with his IMAX sequence, saving his most languidly paced scenes to tell the most obvious parts of the story. We do know how this one ends, after all. At two hours and 20 minutes, First Man would’ve been just as effective at two hours (I’m a firm believer that it should require congressional approval to make a film longer than two hours). Length aside, it carves out a compelling space between the unrelenting terror of Gravity and the surreal landscapes of Interstellar, exploring the roots of why we find space travel so captivating in the first place.