No matter what, somebody was going to go down in the history books as the first man to set foot on the moon. If it hadn’t been Neil Armstrong, it might have been Jim Lovell; if it hadn’t been an American, it would have been a Russian.
First Man makes the case that the man who actually went down in the history books was a man, if not the man, who cared more about the endeavor for its own sake than about who would go down in the history books.
But it also suggests that, no matter who wound up taking that first step on an alien world, that giant leap for mankind would also be one small step for a man no bigger on the inside than any of us.
Armstrong certainly had the right stuff, including the ability to stay cool in the face of an unfolding crisis that could have fatal consequences in seconds and figure out the right thing to do.
In one way that first footstep in the dust on the lunar surface represents all of humanity, and the U.S. flag planted by Armstrong (seen in a number of shots, belying the controversy over the omission of its actual planting) represents the nation that won this climatic chapter in the space race.
But it was not a paradigm or archetype who took that step or planted that flag. It was a fallible, wounded individual with personal baggage he couldn’t leave behind, even on a trip to the moon.
First Man is Damien Chazelle’s third film in a row about special individuals whose quest to achieve great things is linked to emotional isolation from others.
Chazelle won the Best Director Academy Award in 2017 for La La Land, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as creative souls and lovers who ultimately achieve their dreams only after breaking up. His prior film, Whiplash, was about a young drummer who breaks up with his girlfriend in order to focus on his passion and an abusive teacher, played by J.K. Simmons (who won the supporting actor Oscar for the role), who terrorizes his students in order to push the truly talented to greatness.
In this telling of the life of Neil Armstrong, which reunites Chazelle with Gosling in the lead role, the filmmaker has an iconic American incarnation of his favorite theme.
Following James R. Hansen’s official biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, on which it is based, Chazelle’s film finds a key turning point in Armstrong’s life in the devastating loss of his 2-year-old daughter, Karen, to an inoperable brain tumor.
The loss of a child can have an alienating effect on a husband and wife who process trauma and grief differently. Following a theory about presidents who lost children, Hansen suggests that Karen’s death may have helped to spur Armstrong to dedicate himself to an arena far from home and hearth.
For Chazelle, Armstrong’s quest may be for transcendence, or at least transformation. A harrowing opening sequence begins in medias res with Armstrong piloting an X-15 so close to the edge of space that he has trouble returning to Earth.
Still, he recalls that experience with wonder, even reverence, when being interviewed for the astronaut program and asked about the value of making the journey to the moon. On Earth, he says, the atmosphere that surrounds us seems vast, but from the edge of space, the Earth’s blanket of air seems thin and insubstantial.
From this perspective, the point of going to the moon is not what we learn about the moon, but what we learn about our place in the universe.
As an actor, Gosling has charisma to burn — a quality he has to submerge to play the reserved, understated Armstrong. Yet unlike his muted last role, playing a docile replicant in Blade Runner 2049, here Gosling bristles with intelligence and purpose, not to mention an occasional glint of humor.
His Armstrong isn’t one to suffer fools or to give people what they want. How did it feel to be selected to command the Apollo 11 mission? “I was pleased,” Armstrong tells the press, and rewording the question elicits no more quotation-working response.
Fortunately for the press, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (Corey Stoll) is more than willing to play to the cameras. Aldrin comes off as a bit of a brute; after one callous remark, he adds defensively, “I’m just saying what you’re thinking.” Armstrong’s laconic retort: “Well, maybe you shouldn’t!”
Claire Foy (The Crown) is well-matched with Gosling as Armstrong’s wife, Janet, who married him in the hope of finding stability and remains supportive of him to the end, but can stand up to him — or his NASA superiors — when necessary. The emotional connection between them is potent even when it is strained.
First Man effectively evokes the urgency of the space race, from the demoralizing frustration at every new milestone the Soviets reached before the United States to the thrill of victory when the U.S. crossed a line first.
We also feel acutely the vulnerability of the astronauts strapping themselves into claustrophobically confined spaces of immensely powerful engines that could easily kill them, and do kill some.
Janet’s angry remark about NASA being “a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood” rings true because we see — and feel — how treacherous the technology can be.
Following one particularly devastating loss, Armstrong doggedly tells Bob Gilruth, the first director of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center, “We’ve got to fail down here so we don’t fail up there.” At what cost? Gilruth asks. “It’s a little bit late for that question, isn’t it, sir?” is Armstrong’s angry reply.
The possibility of failure looms so large that we see the White House has prepared a statement for the public in the event that the Apollo 11 crew don’t make the return trip. The air of foreboding Chazelle creates at the start of the mission almost makes us feel we’re watching the astronauts go to their deaths.
Not all of Chazelle’s choices work so well. Just as he undermined the big musical sequences in La La Land with his insistence on shooting them in showy single takes, here he relies so much on shaky handheld camerawork and extreme close-ups, even in ordinary quiet moments, that it becomes tiresome.
Yet the climactic sequence on the moon is heart-stopping in its stillness and austere splendor, elevating the film from excellence to near greatness. I’m not sure the words “magnificent desolation” have ever been more evocatively put to film than here. Everything else seems to recede — for a time.
That includes, for me, the flag-planting kerfuffle. There is a crucial moment on the moon, the culmination of one of the film’s central themes, that would arguably have been undermined by a flag-planting scene. Aldrin, in that news conference, jokes about his wife slipping him jewelry that she hopes he will bring to the moon and leave there. “What man wouldn’t want to give his wife bragging rights?” he asks rhetorically. When it comes to the point, though, more than bragging rights are in play.
First Man is ultimately more about the “man” than the “first.” It’s the story of a dedicated engineer and a gifted pilot who knew and accepted that his commitment to the program and the goal might cost him his life. Above all, though, it’s the story of a fragile human being who was never the same after a defining tragedy — who loved his daughter to the moon and back.
Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Caveat Spectator: Some mature themes, including peril, fatal accidents and the death of a child; brief strong language. Teens and up.
This story was updated on Nov. 9, 2018.