Movie review: ‘First Man’ goes on a cerebral, emotional voyage to the moon
There are a few things you should know before seeing this newest film from Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash,” “La La Land”). It’s not an action-filled outer space movie. It’s not, at its center, even about the first Apollo moon landing. It’s not really even about NASA.
All of that is in there, much of it in great detail. But based on James Hansen’s massive 2005 book “First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong,” with a script by Josh Singer (“Spotlight,” “The Post”), it’s much more focused on what led Neil Armstrong to become commander of Apollo 11 and go on that mission. No attempt is made to cover the ground in the book, as it sticks with events that happened between 1961, when Armstrong — a pilot with an engineering background — took part in NASA’s manned flight training program, and 1969, when the Eagle landed on the moon and Armstrong took that one small step.
It’s a long (140 minutes), slow-paced character study, punctuated by scenes of rousing action and unrelenting tension, and is a whittled-down history of how we got, to borrow a Jules Verne title, from the Earth to the moon.
It’s a triumph of the spirit story, with Ryan Gosling somberly portraying Armstrong as a man who wasn’t necessarily going after glory, but trying to find solace from tragedy in his work. That thread of it is introduced in the film’s opening minutes, when cameras and all attention are trained on Armstrong’s face after his young daughter succumbs to cancer. At that early point, his wife and young son are pretty much ignored, by the cameras and, as is revealed later, by Armstrong, who was consumed by grief.
Throwing himself into his work, and displaying a calm demeanor and a bright mind, he’s seen by NASA bigwigs as a good candidate for Gemini, a series of missions that would put two astronauts in orbit in a capsule as a learning experience for the three-man Apollo flights to the moon that would follow.
But the solace he craved wasn’t to be found at NASA, where the job is dangerous, and before long, tragedy is a regular occurrence in Armstrong’s life there, too, as other astronauts in training go down in crashes and up in flames.
The film starts splitting its time between work and home, with Armstrong’s wife, Janet (Claire Foy) struggling to keep up her inner strength, knowing full well that Neil could be the next fatality, and trying to hold back on the pent-up anger caused by him disappearing into himself, by his indifference to being an attentive husband and father.
Chazelle has put a lot of faith in both Gosling and Foy, in that he’s constantly placing his cameras right up in their faces and letting them play much of their parts wordlessly, challenging viewers to figure out what’s going on inside.
As far as those exciting moments, they’re done with a great deal of flair. During one Gemini launchpad sequence, there’s silence, broken by heavy breathing, joined by metallic creaking sounds, interrupted by the control room countdown, finally erupting into loud pandemonium, all of it taking place within the capsule. Later on, a successful mission in space goes wrong, resulting in a nerve-racking lesson of how to keep one’s cool in adverse situations. Still later, if you know what the Apollo “plugs-out” tests were, you’ll know what’s coming; if you don’t, you’ll go through an emotional wringer in that scene.
By the time things lead up to the celebrated moon landing, it’s clear that Chazelle knows how to tell a gripping and unusually low-key story. Though I still like him better as a more kinetic, splashy director, he’s achieved a specific major accomplishment here. In the lengthy scene where Armstrong slowly climbs down the ladder to the moon’s surface, there’s complete silence in the film. The full-house audience I saw it with was also absolutely silent, as if everyone was holding their breath. It was a magical shared experience. It was one reason to go to a movie theater instead of watching a film on your couch.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Josh Singer; directed by Damien Chazelle
With Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll