Director Damien Chazelle shoots for the moon.
This review was originally published out of the Toronto International Film Festival.
First Man works so well is because it chooses to focus on an intimate story about what it takes to achieve greatness. And what better filmmaker to explore that idea than Damien Chazelle, a director who has made a career out of stories about the sacrifices we make for our dreams. Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) accomplishes that once again here while also delivering a visually stunning film.
The film starts with an eye-popping opening scene in which astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), as a test pilot in 1961, rides an X-15 into the clouds, to the point where mission control tells him he will bounce off the atmosphere. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who also shot La La Land, puts us inside the cockpit for a claustrophobic and impossibly shot sequence that is so immersive you may be forgiven for feeling dizzy and disoriented. The sound design and score help, as we feel every loose screw, every turn of the engines, and Justin Hurwitz’s score resembles a ticking clock, guaranteed to increase your heart rate.
Right from the start, Chazelle and Sandgren play with the juxtaposition of the micro against the macro. Like Dunkirk did, the film puts us in very intimate settings, against the background of a giant historical event. At the center of it all stands Neil Armstrong. While we explore both the Gemini and Apollo programs, from 1961 until the moon landing in 1969, this is really a story about the man who went home every night after preparing to give his famous small step but giant leap. Based on James R. Hansen’s book of the same name, First Man does explore how NASA achieved the impossible and beat the Russians to the moon, but that plot is always in support of a story about an emotionally withdrawn man who lost his daughter and uses his job and impossible feats to work through his grief.
The real Neil Armstrong was a very reclusive and private man, which means we don’t know much about him. Even after finishing the movie, you will not feel like you know the first man on the moon – which may prevent some viewers from connecting with the story – but you understand him. The stoic, reserved nature of the character makes this a perfect role for Ryan Gosling, who excels at minimalist, emotional performances, and who does an excellent job here at showing how Neil is constantly on the verge of an emotional breakdown, but always manages to keep that at bay for the sake of his work.
Because of how private and distant Neil is in the film, it is up to the other characters to carry most of the emotional weight. Claire Foy in particular owns the movie as Neil’s wife, Janet, who is left with the knowledge that her husband may die at any moment, holding her household and herself together as she endures watching the loss of other astronauts as the preparations for the Apollo missions begin.
We have seen movies about the accomplishments of the U.S. space program before, but never about its failures. If The Right Stuff dealt with the anticipation of the trip, and Apollo 13 dealt with ingenuity and duct tape involved in preventing a disaster, then First Man is about failing and vulnerability. The first two films are ultimately about success, but here screenwriter Josh Singer and Chazelle focus on the failures that lead to that historic victory. The film isn’t afraid to get up close to the disaster that came before the moon landing, even placing the viewer inside the Apollo 1 spacecraft as it catches on fire, killing everyone inside. We feel the heartbreak of losing these men, we feel the tension of not knowing whether or not Armstrong and his crew will succeed – even if we know the true story by heart.
When we finally get to the moon landing the screen expands, changing from 35mm to 70mm IMAX. It is a breathtaking shot, aided by the format, that really puts the viewer in the shoes of Neil Armstrong as he makes his iconic first steps. The sound is completely cut off, and most of the screen goes pitch black to immerse the audience and make them feel like they are in the void of space. First Man acknowledges how magnificent an achievement the moon landing was, yet it never loses sight of the inner struggle and journey of the first man who stepped on its surface.