Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Olivia Hamilton, Ciarán Hinds, Shea Whigham, Pablo Schreiber, Christopher Abbott, Ethan Embry, Lukas Haas, Cory Michael Smith, Brady Smith, Brian d'Arcy James
MPAA Rating: (for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language)
Running Time: 2:21
Release Date: 10/12/18
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 11, 2018
For about 20 minutes, Neil Armstrong was the loneliest human being in the universe. Other explorers throughout history had been so alone, but before Armstrong, all of them at least had the knowledge of being within the boundaries of our planet, shared by the rest of humanity since there have been human beings. The sense of isolation for Armstrong, though, must have been unlike any other person who ever lived—the first man to plant his feet on ground beyond Earth. Yes, Buzz Aldrin was yards away within the Apollo 11's Lunar Excursion Module, but it was Armstrong who stepped on the moon first—completely alone in human history and within his own thoughts, amidst, as Aldrin called it, that "magnificent desolation."
Director Damien Chazelle's First Man, a biographical account of the astronaut's career and personal life from his final test flight in a rocket-powered aircraft to his return to Earth from the moon, puts forth the notion that Armstrong was uniquely qualified for this task. He had prepared himself and desperately desired to be more alone in the universe than any other person before him—or since, for that matter.
From what we see in the film, he spent most of this period alone in his own thoughts, while possessing a particular knack for refusing to voice them. Surrounded by family and colleagues who want him to say what he's thinking, this interpretation of Armstrong would rather keep his face in a notebook, his mind on the immediate task at hand, and his eyes always looking toward that shining orb in the night sky.
We typically envision Armstrong and his fellow early astronauts as larger-than-life heroes—men of extraordinary intelligence, ingenuity, determination, and courage. The film affirms that truth, of course. Josh Singer's screenplay (based on James R. Hansen's book) also sees them—and Armstrong in particular—as ordinary men facing an extraordinary challenge with an almost matter-of-fact attitude. Told that he's going to be commander of the first manned mission to land on the moon, Armstrong, still washing his hands in a NASA restroom, simply responds, "OK."
Armstrong is played here by Ryan Gosling, in an especially challenging and rather exceptional performance, in which everything about the man's internal thoughts and feelings are kept close to the chest. The challenge is in finding a way to communicate that Armstrong's silence and closed-off nature are far from some sort of apathy. He feels too much, perhaps, but also feels required to keep such things to himself.
Two challenges for Armstrong are presented early in the film. The first is the test flight of an X-15 aircraft, which goes awry as he tries to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. Here, we see how Chazelle portrays the film's various expeditions beyond the clouds, into space, and, ultimately, to the moon. The sequences are straightforward enough, in that there's a particular goal or series of goals that must be accomplished, but they're shot and edited with a sense of overwhelming confusion that borders on the abstract.
That first flight gives us Armstrong's silhouette in the pilot's seat, shaking to and fro as the aircraft increases its speed. There are selective shots from outside the story's assorted vessels, but they're always attached to the craft. Even within the expanse of space, there's a feeling of claustrophobia. Chazelle also incorporates multiple point-of-view shots, showing the limited view from the windows of the ships, the confounding array of gauges and dials on the consoles, and even Armstrong ejecting from a test model of the lunar lander, as it crashes and explodes below him.
It feels almost unreal at times, as it must have for these astronauts. Justin Hurwitz's distinct score, occasionally set almost in harmony with the whirring and clanking of machine parts, continues that feeling. There are themes here that have the sound and tenor of science-fiction, and Armstrong's attempt to dock with another spacecraft in orbit is set to a melodic waltz.
The second challenge for Armstrong is personal, and it defines just about every aspect of his life—even though he never says so. It's the death of his two-year-old daughter from a brain tumor (There's the haunting whirring of machinery here, too, as the child-sized coffin is lowered into the ground). While there's still hope for the girl, we see him jotting down the various treatments and medical advice in a notebook, as if matters of life and death are simply a problem that can be worked out with the right way of thinking.
Locked in his office, as friends and well-wishers pay their respects throughout the Armstrong home, he closes the curtains, so that no one can see him express his grief. Shortly after, with the succinct and forthright manner that defines his way of talking, he tells his wife Janet (a strong Claire Foy), "I think I might go back to work." Janet's role is much more than simply the worried wife at home, as she tries to make her husband understand that there is more to life—his and in general—than what's within his own mind.
The rest of the film jumps ahead through the highlights of Armstrong's career with the Gemini and Apollo programs, overseen by Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) and Robert Gilruth (Ciarán Hinds). We meet his colleagues, played by a collection of recognizable actors. Of primary importance are Ed White (Jason Clarke), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit), and, naturally, Aldrin (Corey Stoll). The first two will be dead by the time Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) set forth to moon. For Armstrong, those deaths and others simply add up to another reason and yet another to stay focused on the moon—to push down what he refuses to show anyone else. After so much loss, Armstrong's face, while receiving a call about a fire in the Apollo 1 capsule, is like a stone carving of professional stoicism.
This is not a flattering picture of Armstrong as the explorer hero. Instead, the film gives us a more authentic depiction of the professional, logistical, mechanical, and personal challenges that Armstrong endured—sometimes failing and, from a significant perspective, ultimately succeeding—to do what no man before him had done. There are sacrifices here that even he does not seem to comprehend, as his family nearly falls apart without him appearing to notice or, perhaps, even care.
Obviously, First Man reaches its climax by and on the moon (Chazelle shot the scenes set on the lunar surface with an IMAX camera, which results in a jaw-dropping moment of serenity and, after a lot of handheld camera work, stability). It's Armstrong's final reward for years of work, pain, and suppression—to be completely alone, to be truly himself, to finally allow a release of what has been bottled up for years. We feel the weight of his first step, but it's something much lighter, dropped only for himself, that bears the full weight of his achievement.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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