First Man doesn’t so much tell a straight story of Neil Armstrong’s mission to the moon as much as it tries to slip inside his mind, trying to feel every jolt of the cockpit and every sting of surrounding death. Director Damien Chazelle goes digging for an experience in Armstrong’s path which is certainly debatable in motivation but nevertheless keeps your eyes locked on the objective as strongly as Neil keeps focused. And for the direction Chazelle chooses to steer this towering biography, it’s a trip worth taking.
Neil Armstrong is exceptionally played by Ryan Gosling, at least in the manner Chazelle was aiming for. He has tunnel vision at work, playfulness at home, but a quiet presence in both areas. He presses on in a manner that seems odd to some, reserving his tears in private with the loss of his daughter and back at work the next day without it bothering him. A controversial decision of Chazelle comes in suggesting that the death of Neil’s daughter secretly drove him as a very distant echo in his mind, so pushed-aside it rarely ever comes up in conversation. It doesn’t matter in the cockpit, where quick and intelligent moves are required to avoid a flaming crash or hurdling out of the atmosphere. This instinct makes him the perfect candidate for NASA’s mission to the moon; a mission that requires the most dedicated of men for the most fearful of expeditions.
Neil’s nature works for keeping the program going but it doesn’t bode as well for his wife Janet (Claire Foy). She tries to stick with him when it comes to moving around and having another child but there’s only so much a wife and mother can take when her husband is so reserved. She looks around at the other wives losing pilots and having their lives destroyed, only to see Neil so stone-faced and unemotional when it comes to loss. Janet tries to snap Neil out of it mere days before the big launch to the moon but all he can tell his kids are the same words he told the press.
To understand Neil’s bravery, we’re locked inside the cockpit right alongside him. We see everything he sees, peering out his helmet at the horizon gleaming off his helmet, the sky of black and blue poking through his small windows. We hear every terrifying noise within his cramped craft spaces; the loud engines, the howling winds, the buckling metal, the beeping gauges, and the static of the radio. And I have no doubt if D-Box was still a thing that we’d be feeling every bump and force that works against Neil and his mission. In terms of experiencing flight and spaceflight, Chazelle goes for the most gripping of intense scenes that rarely shake away from the terror of never landing again.
There seemed to be some controversy among the frothing patriotic condemning the film for not featuring the scene of planting the flag. Chazelle’s choice of excluding the exact moment is an artistic one for sure, trying to keep the moon landing devoid of sound and falling back on the iconic audio without a swelling of music. He also tries to bring Neil’s arc of contemplating death to a close, something that just doesn’t feel right when accented with a moment of planting the American flag on the moon. Don’t worry; you’ll still feel the flag on the moon but Chazelle wants to stage it in a manner all his own and not go for the easy Clint Eastwood route of staging it with a lens flare, an orchestra, and an obligatory clap from the audience.
On first glance, First Man is certainly not Chazelle’s strongest film after the more pristine and exceptional jazz pictures of Whiplash and La La Land. It stirs up many characters, including the cocky Buzz Aldrin, played well by Corey Stoll, but doesn’t do much with them past their inclusion in the moon race. Neil’s confliction with death is never fully realized for making him so reserved and it feels as though there should just be a little more to Janet, given the fantastic performance by Foy. But for how the film is shot and the atmosphere it weaves of portraying all the excitement, fear, and daringness of space flight, the movie succeeds at being an engaging spectacle. It just seems to be comfortable being only an experience and less so a character study. This is best exemplified after Neil dusts himself off from a failed lunar lander test that goes up in flames and one of the program heads asks if this mission is worth the cost. Neil responds that it’s a little late to ask that now. And by that point in the movie, we know where this is all headed and I was content to sit back and enjoy the bumpy ride.