‘FIRST MAN’ Review: Triumph and Therapy in Space

Damien Chazelle & Ryan Gosling reunite for one of the year’s best, both an inspiring biopic and exercise in claustrophobic, white-knuckle terror.

We need to fail. We need to fail down here so we don’t fail up there.

–Neil Armstrong

One of my major takeaways from First Man, after 141 minutes of watching astronauts get shaken, rattled, and rolled inside a ballistic sardine can, is that I categorically do not have the Right Stuff. I presume that the feeling of those early space missions is something Damien Chazelle & crew get authentically correct. We’ve seen a lot of astronaut movies — many of them great — but by comparison, the capsules of Apollo 13 or From the Earth to the Moon look downright glamourous. The real thing was cramped and poorly lit, with the astronauts’ helmeted faces inches away from a hundred buttons, knobs, and alarms that could screech at any moment.

The flight sequences are the showcase of First Man, and certainly Chazelle’s reason for making the film. They are both terrifying and awe-inspiring. The Gemini 8 mission, where Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott successfully docked with another craft only to start spinning nightmarishly out of control, is likely to induce a panic attack. Chazelle keeps his camera either inside the claustrophobic cabin or bolted to the outside — no glamour shots here — as the ship rolls endlessly, seconds stretching into minutes into what feels like days. As a cinematic experience, it’s relentless; the polar opposite approach of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, replacing elegant long shots with grainy, hypnotically-edited extreme closeups of Ryan Gosling’s steel-blue eyes and ship sensors surpassing their designed limits, while the soundtrack’s voom, voom, voom of centrifugal force loops like a skipping record.

There’s wonder as well, like when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin open the LEM’s hatch after landing, and the movement of the camera replicates the sensation of the air rushing out of the craft; it’s a simple thing, but it took my breath away — figuratively and literally. Chazelle’s fourth feature is a towering technical achievement, the closest a filmmaker has come to the real you-are-there verisimilitude of flight in a rickety enclosed space, and the fleeting moments of beauty that make that worth it. And yes, there are plenty of American flags, which ought to bring to a close the most moronic “controversy” since the last moronic controversy (though the late edit changing Armstrong’s iconic line to “America owns the moon now, this is for the troops and cops” was a bit over the top, frankly).

But technical achievement alone does not a film make — just ask La La Land — and if the film had left me as cold as the pitiless void, it would have been one of the more depressing misfires of the season. Instead, Chazelle shows new skills in emotional subtlety. The throughline of First Man is the chipping away of Armstrong’s all-American stoicism, communicating wells of feeling through the staging, camerawork, and Ryan Gosling’s internalized performance. His Armstrong isn’t just taciturn, but repressed to an unhealthy degree. Sometimes this is played for a laugh — when Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler, fully typecast) informs Armstrong in a NASA bathroom that he’ll be commanding Apollo 11, his response is a simple “Okay.” When he sits his sons down for “the talk” about how he might not be coming back, he blandly answers their questions like it’s yet another press conference.

The root of it is Armstrong’s unprocessed grief from losing his daughter to cancer, and after a moment alone at her wake where he lets the tears come, he commits himself to his work because he simply can’t let himself think about anything else, lest he start seeing her in crowds or corners. This makes a difficult life even harder for his wife, Janet (Claire Foy, superb), who has resigned herself to Neil’s long absences and the perpetual danger — as much as she tries to block that part out — but whose patience is dwindling for his emotional distance. Armstrong ultimately has to go all the way to the moon to properly process his feelings (very expensive therapy, I’d say), but the preceding years churn by, increasingly fraught; for the wives in the neighborhood, the missions are a change of pace from lives spent drifting from funeral to funeral.

The screenplay from Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post), based on the biography by James R. Hansen, is comfortable implying these emotional leaps but leaving it to Chazelle to fully realize. Gosling’s interpretation is fascinating. We’ve seen plenty of actors use the absence of emotion to imply pathos (a recent if left-field example being Jonah Hill’s non-performance in Netflix’s Maniac), but it’s not just about stillness and delivering dialogue flatly. Gosling and Chazelle depict a man relentlessly focused on the goal in front of him at the expense of everything else. When Aldrin (Corey Stoll, charismatic a-hole) and glorified designated driver Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) take the elevator to board Apollo 11, they can’t help but look all around, taking in every moment. Armstrong, however, stares straight ahead.

That’s how Chazelle seemed to approach the film, too. First Man is about as far from La La Land as the 33-year-old could get; stylistically, it’s actually closest to his grad school debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, in being almost entirely made up of handheld closeups and staging even domestic scenes with Godardian matter-of-factness. It’s evident that Chazelle and his gifted collaborators — cinematographer Linus Sandgren, editing wizard Tom Cross (who gets a lifetime pass from me after Whiplash), and longtime composer Justin Hurwitz — poured everything they had into depicting the missions, which they do extraordinarily. And the film is better for at least acknowledging the social upheaval of the late 1960s; a memorable montage set to the spoken-word “Whitey on the Moon” at least gestures toward asking whether the money and lives are worth it, a question the film dodges somewhat by making it about one man’s journey. It’s unvarnished, not revisionist history, but simply part of a larger mosaic; intentionally too narrow in scope to fully address those issues.

Your mileage on the ground-level scenes (and especially the film’s final scenes) instead depend entirely on whether you buy what Gosling is doing — or rather, not doing. We know he’s got range; he’s killed it in broad comedies like The Big Short and The Nice Guys, as well as anchoring Blade Runner 2049 in a way many didn’t expect. Foy’s greatness is a given, as she does a lot with a little and is frequently asked to carry the emotional weight for both of them. The film is also populated with a who’s who of “Hey it’s that guy”s — Ciarán Hinds, Patrick Fugit, Shea Whigam, Pablo Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy James, and Jason Clarke (a standout as Ed White of the doomed Apollo 1) all bring different energies to scenes where they take turns bouncing off Armstrong like he’s made of Teflon.

But as much as the film venerates the titular First Man, it is also wise to not portray his detached unflappability as a proper masculine virtue — rather, as the symptom of a psychological state that leaves him floundering when he’s not driving toward a single goal. At his climactic moment of closure, standing alone on the edge of a lunar crater, years of pent-up grief evaporate before us and he is finally free. When he returns home, he is truly “back” — in every sense of the word — and the choices Chazelle makes in those final moments are perhaps his most profound. First Man isn’t just a triumphant depiction of flying, but landing.

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