Movie review: Chazelle’s ‘First Man’ is a stirring look at moon landing
If you were an astronaut in the 1960s, it was a smart idea to have a dark, well-pressed suit handy in your closet. Not for dinners and galas, but for funerals, either yours or one of your comrades. That’s how prevalent death was when NASA crammed these guys in tin cans and sat them atop massive booster rockets packed with enough volatile fuel to equal a small atomic bomb. Blast off, indeed.
Now imagine one of those big babies doubled in size and you start to get an idea of the thrust lifting Damien Chazelle’s powerful “First Man” off the pad. Bring your space helmet because you’re going to need it in the rarefied air of a drama that shakes you physically almost as much as it does emotionally. If “La La Land” has taught us anything, it’s that Chazelle is a marvel at spectacle. And what’s more spectacular than 1969’s Apollo 11 Moon landing? Nothing, that’s what. It’s still the single greatest achievement in the history of mankind. But it took a lot of blood, sweat and tears, along with the occasional death in the line of duty, to achieve it.
The Reaper lurks practically everywhere, particularly around Neil Armstrong, the civilian test pilot who was the right man at the right time with the right stuff. Central casting couldn’t come up with a better choice to become the first human to stroll across the dusty lunar surface. He was smart, stoic and steadfast, unfazed by any emergency, like the day his Gemini 8 spacecraft began to tumble out of control 150 miles above the Earth, an event requiring split-second resourcefulness by Armstrong if he and fellow astronaut David Scott (Christopher Abbott) were to survive.
Chazelle thrillingly recreates that dizzying, frightening moment to a level of realism that will have you reaching for the barf bag. But ol’ Neil is barely rattled as he saves the day, not just for him and his partner, but his country, which couldn’t afford another setback in a winner-take-all space race with the Russians. It’s a role tailor made for Ryan Gosling, an actor capable of making a reclusive man of few words — and even less emotion — seem vital, fascinating and heroic. His Neil Armstrong is the sort of selfless, unadorned giant they don’t make anymore. And you mourn that almost as much as Armstrong mourns his 2-year-old daughter, Karen, the driving force behind his will to go higher and farther in hopes of reaching out and touching her again in the heavens.
Hers is the first of more than a half-dozen funerals he will attend over a five-year period between January 1962 and January 1967, when his best friend, Ed White (Jason Clarke), perished along with Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham) and Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith) in a gruesome flash fire inside the Apollo 1 spacecraft. But the program, along with Armstrong, would rise from the ashes — like it had so many times before. What’s notable about all the sadness is how it motivated Armstrong to keep alive the hopes and dreams of his fallen mates.
Chazelle, along with Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer (“Spotlight”), make personal sacrifice a recurring theme in chronicling Armstrong’s rise from X-15 test pilot to man on the Moon. But it’s never employed as a cheap emotional ploy; it was just an existential fact of life for astronauts then and now. It’s also a maneuver as tricky as rendezvous and docking for Gosling to communicate that internalized pain and sadness from behind an eerily dispassionate exterior. Yet he pulls it off in a perfectly calibrated performance.
Right there with him is “The Crown’s” Emmy-winning Claire Foy as Neil’s wife, Janet, struggling to be supportive despite knowing every time her man leaves their Houston home there’s a strong chance he won’t be coming back. All she need do is look out at White’s grieving widow (Olivia Hamilton) across the street to understand the gravity of the zero-gravity business. It’s not the marriage she signed up for, and Foy enables you to sense the frustration of both the uncertainty and the need to handle all the grieving for their daughter because Neil can never bring himself to confront it aloud.
The great astronaut-distant husband subtext is proof Chazelle isn’t out to sanctify Armstrong. He simply wants to underscore the idea that beyond being an astronaut, Armstrong was just a normal guy with ordinary problems caught in extraordinary circumstances. That humanizing extends to Armstrong’s cohorts: Chief of astronauts Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), flight director Gene Kranz (Ciaran Hinds), doomed astronaut Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) and Armstrong’s Apollo 11 crewmates Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas). And I could go on; just know that everyone excels, rendering “First Man” a true ensemble piece.
The level of authenticity they contribute is advanced by a bevy of special effects sure to blow your mind, especially the actual Moon landing on a craggy, dangerous sea of boulders, craters and rippled terrain that became Tranquility Base. History assures they made the landing, but Chazelle stages it so suspensefully you dare not breathe until they actually touch down. That’s followed by the film’s finest scene: The moonwalk. It’s a masterwork of filmmaking from the moment Armstrong utters those simple but profound words, “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind,” to when he pays a moving tribute to his daughter, Karen, at the lip of Little West Crater.
It’s beautifully shot by Oscar-winner Linus Sandgren (“La La Land”) and impeccably replicated by set designer Nathan Crowley (“Dunkirk”). But what strikes you about the five-minute sequence is the silence. No dialogue, no music, just pure, unadulterated quiet. And at the screening I attended, the audience was so rapt you could literally hear a pin drop. It’s simply a guy in a bulky white spacesuit bouncing around weightless on a desolate moonscape, but it brings real tears — for the man, his grief and our nation’s grandest achievement.
You’ve might of heard Buzz Aldrin complain there are no shots of the American flag being planted, but as Chazelle has said in response, it’s not an accomplishment exclusive to the U.S., it was a victory for the entire world, nicely depicted in the film’s final, lump-in-your-throat moments. Besides, “First Man” is already so wrapped tight in red, white and blue, Colin Kaepernick might feel the need to kneel in the aisle. I for one can attest how solidly it stirred my patriotism and pride in a country that used to make and do things we depressingly no longer do. Perhaps this will be a catalyst to return to those days when anything and everything was possible, as long as men and women, like Armstrong, are prepared to live — and die — for it.
Cast includes Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Corey Stoll.
(PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language.)