I’ll be honest, I was a little disappointed when I heard that the next movie directed by Damien Chazelle was going to be a biopic on Neil Armstrong and the Moon Landing. As monumental a story as that is, I couldn’t help feel it was a big step down creatively from the sensational and technical brilliance of Whiplash and especially La La Land that made Chazelle one of the most promising filmmakers in Hollywood and the youngest Oscar-winning director. I underestimated Chazelle however, as though the story obviously isn’t original, the approach to this movie certainly is.
A character study as much as a chronicle of the various attempts by NASA during the 1960s to get ahead of the Russians in the space race, the movie follows an introverted but skilled pilot Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), who joins NASA’s astronaut program after the tragic death of his daughter. As he takes part in various tests and missions, culminating in the inaugural lunar expedition, his wife Janet (Claire Foy) feels increasingly detached from him and stressed by the risk of the endeavours.
The first interesting thing about this film is the almost documentary-like nature Chazelle directs it with. Certain scenes are shot handheld and framed precisely. Especial focus is given to the technology both at the base and in the pods, distinctly noting its relative primitive nature compared to where we are now. There’s a lot of detail put into the operations and the road to the moon landing, the shaky, chaotic camerawork during the missions and the claustrophobia of the capsule puts the audience into the space with the astronauts. This allows the movie to spurn predictability and maintain a high level of intensity, notably in the Gemini 8 sequence which achieves near Gravity levels of chaos. This film doesn’t shy away from the high risks of what NASA’s attempting, and it asks the question (literally at one point) if going to the moon primarily just to beat the Russians is worth the human cost -which is bold for something now considered such an important, historic moment. The subtle acting from most of the cast creates the impression of true biography. Neil in particular is really reserved, quiet, and almost humourless, which is a far cry from what usually comes to mind when one thinks of a venerated American hero. But it also feels real, as does the effect his nonchalant, contemplative behaviour has on Janet.
Ryan Gosling doesn’t say a lot in this movie, but his performance is great. He plays Neil Armstrong with a solemn dedication and restrained intelligence. The film never goes into his reasons for staying with NASA, going on the dangerous missions, and putting his life on the line repeatedly. Nor does it resolve the fact that he’s never discussed his daughters’ death with his wife. But it does allow us to see his love for both, the latter particularly being a deep wound that drives him, and intuit its meaning on his priorities and actions. This kind of performance and direction could very easily have come across underdeveloped, but Gosling and Chazelle are talented enough to give it nuance and make it feel honest. Still, the better performance is Claire Foy keeping her frustration and anxiety hidden in the same way her husband hides his trauma. She however is not nearly as collected and has a couple stand-out moments confronting him or one of the other engineers. And these scenes are very affecting if for nothing else than Foy’s amazingly expressive eyes. The supporting cast is quite good, including Shea Whigham, Ciaran Hinds, Kyle Chandler, Pablo Schreiber, Jason Clarke as a friendly and brave Ed White, and Corey Stoll as a charismatic though inappropriately outspoken Buzz Aldrin.
In centring it’s attention on the space missions, and specifically Neil Armstrong’s perspective on them, First Man does overlook a few important aspects of Apollo 11 and the general goings-on at NASA in the 1960s. It doesn’t touch on John Glenn’s 1962 foray into orbit for example, and there’s nary a mention of the work of the mathematicians behind each mission, including Katherine Johnson and the women highlighted in Hidden Figures. But for this the movie still has incredible finesse in its depiction of space and the Moon Landing itself. Chazelle uses silence very well, muting the sound with every shot outside the modules in an impact tactic clearly inherited from 2001. The lunar landing itself is exceptionally well done, taking it’s time to build wonderfully. The sound editing is especially powerful when they open the door onto the lunar surface. You feel the weight of the footstep, the iconic quote, and the distance from Earth. And for all the insecure Americans worried about it, the flag does in fact appear.
Obviously this movie can’t capture the magnitude of the actual Moon Landing, certainly not for someone like my dad who watched it first-hand, but it does recall the event rather well. First Man isn’t as masterful as Chazelle’s previous films, though it was never going to be given how ubiquitous Neil Armstrong and the Moon Landing are in history and culture. But it does feel like a fresh, terrifically directed, skilfully acted, and fittingly grandiose telling of the story.