First Man is an introspective portrait of a man—and a nation—obsessed with the impossible
Damien Chazelle (La La Land) is not the director you’d expect to take on a biopic of Neil Armstrong, the reluctant pilot and engineer who would become the first in history to walk on the Moon. You don’t watch the furious emotional intensity of Whiplash or the swooning dreaminess of La La Land and think this is a man well-suited for crafting a cinematic portrayal of arguably mankind’s most difficult scientific achievement. Turns out Chazelle is mostly an inspired choice, opting not for the patriotic gumption of other NASA flicks but instead for the quiet wonder of the drive of a broken man who will do anything to make his dream a reality.
Such is the tale of First Man, which follows Armstrong (Ryan Gosling, Blade Runner 2049) from his early days as a test pilot through to his fateful journey to the Moon. In many ways the film is a pure procedural, portraying the many failures and triumphs that would eventually allow Armstrong to complete his mission. But by eschewing the cliché of pure reenactment and focusing more on the drive needed to accomplish such a feat, we see the pieces of tragedy that drive the distant Armstrong to stop at nothing to achieve success: the loss of his infant daughter Karen to cancer and the mounting deaths of his fellow astronauts due to various failed experiments. As the bodies pile up, Armstrong’s reluctance—and obsession—only grows in intensity.
It’s a movie that more or less hinges on Gosling, who is the perfect choice to capture the aching nature of this tortured spaceman. Gosling is not the best in the business when it comes to bombastic shows of emotion, only really landing those sorts of moments in his more frantic comedic roles, but there’s no one quite like him when it comes to capturing that quiet, searing longing behind a pained soul’s eyes. His excellent roles as a samurai-like getaway man and an android crumbling under the weight of existential angst in Drive and Blade Runner 2049 were merely warm-ups for the challenge of portraying Armstrong, a man whose personality was as distant as the Moon itself. While the script may play fast and loose with Armstrong’s motivations, often teetering dangerously into forced character study, it does allow Gosling to work his wounded magic to its fullest extent, turning in what is arguably a career performance. He captures all the tics of Armstrong marvelously: his bafflement in the glare of the spotlight, his impatience with being asked to grieve openly, his lonely moments of Earth-shattering reflection upon his relationship with Karen. Besides an early moment in the film, he never shows his emotional cards, letting them bubble deep within until they seep out in small doses like there’s breaks in the armor. In one of the most understated and emotionally powerful scenes of the year, Gosling tearily stares up at the Moon in pain over the loss of his friend Elliot See (Patrick Fugit, Gone Girl) in a test crash. When Ed White (Jason Clarke, Zero Dark Thirty) tries to goad him inside, telling him to play with his kids and be there for his wife Jan (Claire Foy, The Crown), Gosling snaps Armstrong wide open with the leveled but choking delivery of “If I wanted to talk to someone, Ed, do you think I would be out here?” It’s a moment that serves as a mission statement for the man himself.
Squaring off against Gosling is Foy as Jan, who turns a rather thankless role into something worthy of her talents. As with most movies about spacefaring, the script gives little depth to the wives of these often absent men, but Foy elevates the role with a gusto that captures the frustration of being married to someone as emotionally complex as Neil Armstrong. She only grows more fiery as the film progresses, evolving from a complacent housewife to a tired woman lambasting the gentlemen’s club that is NASA as “a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood.” It’s certainly not one of the best roles written for a woman this year, but Foy knocks it out of the park regardless.
Outside of the more intimate moments of the film, we have multiple raw depictions of the chaos and danger of Armstrong’s career. Each flight set piece in the film, from the early test flights to the climatic Moon landing, is simultaneously dazzling and anxiety-producing. Chazelle forgoes the glitzy chutzpah of recent “realistic” portrayals of the dangers of space, such as Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and portions of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. He shoots as if we’re seeing events through Armstrong’s own eyes (First Person may have been a more apt title), portraying the creaking shakes and wild spins of the experience of flying a spacecraft with unnerving realism. Despite knowing the end, the fear felt watching these scenes is overwhelming, leaving you wondering how in the hell anyone got out of this alive. It’s a choice that makes you appreciate the loss of Armstrong’s friends even more, and hammers home the sacrifice of those whose paved the road to the Moon. Equally breathtaking is the film’s final sequence on the Moon, which throws the moment’s more famous facets to the side in favor of a mediative, near-silent walk across what Chazelle depicts as an utterly bizarre, alien sight. Fellow moonwalker Buzz Aldrin’s (a charmingly blunt Corey Stoll, House of Cards) famous description, “magnificent desolation", comes to mind.
Whether or not First Man is admirable or perhaps borderline unethical in its approach to the psyche of one of American history’s most unknowable figures is a question that has no easy answers. One could say one of the missions of cinema is to shine a light on that which we find difficult to explain, and the choice of Gosling and Josh Singer’s (Spotlight) script certainly seem to keep that in mind. One could also say that such a choice is to attract the demons of history. The Armstrong of the film is certainly similar to his real-life counterpart in one easily discernible way: both are used, perhaps against their will, as lenses for America’s own splintered heart. This Armstrong’s obsession, driven by his grief, reflects America’s own fantasy of blasting off to some far off place to escape that which ails us. JFK’s famous quote about the pursuit of this improbable dream looms over the film: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” The film seems to suggest maybe we do what is hard out of some guilty sort of masochism, that there is always pain behind valor. It’s an inspired choice for a biopic, but maybe not one that will land uniformly amongst audiences. This is a patient, moving, and often hauntingly beautiful portrait of one of history’s great heroes. Determining if there is truth to the painting is a puzzle as complex as its subject.