While looking like a prestigious biopic that plays straight to the Academy’s liking, Damien Chazelle’s First Man breaks a few rules. The film begins, reasonably enough, with Neil Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) first trip to the atmosphere. His flight isn’t a majestic one as far as the audience is concerned. Linus Sandgren’s verite stylings imposing a sense of claustrophobia on the proceedings. Armstrong’s eyes convey how much he appreciates seeing the world in a different context, but the frenzied movements to keep him from drifting out into space forever suggest a different emotion is in play. The terror of space exploration won’t be glossed over here. Confined inside a capsule, the lives of the astronauts who risked live and limb to set foot on the moon are constantly in danger. The accomplishments of Apollo 11 are often presented without any dissenting notes, yet Chazelle decidedly leans into the material that would otherwise make viewers squirm.
Gravity, The Martian, and Interstellar all made their bones by offering spectacular set pieces; First Man still has those aforementioned highlights, but the writer and director are keen on offering insights of characters before they are sent to space, the grout between tiles so to speak. Key in making that analysis work are actors Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy. Neil Armstrong is presented as the epitome of the square-jawed American exceptionalism, the ideal face of NASA and the future of space flight. Unlike his peer Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), however, Armstrong isn’t particularly chatty. Scarred by the loss of his daughter Karen, Neil launches himself whole-heartedly into the project, sealing himself off from everything and everyone else. Ryan Gosling is as naturally charming as any modern actor though he can’t rely on that skillset to play Armstrong. When Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) informs Armstrong that he’s been chosen to command the Apollo 11 mission, he replies by simply nodding and saying, “Okay.” It’s an introspective performance and one that asks more of historical figures than rousing speeches.
Conversely, Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong gets room to vent the frustrations of all the wives who were cast aside in previous stories. Here, Janet Armstrong shakes the cliche of the wife fretting at home. With the tragic death of Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) fresh on her mind, Janet marches down to headquarters to hear the status of her husband. When Neil tries–in vain–to sneak off in the night to leave for the Apollo mission, Janet forces him to acknowledge with their sons that they might never see him again. Not much is known about Janet Armstrong, and that Claire Foy creates such a lasting impression of her is proof of how effective she is on camera. Her interactions greeting new neighbors, forced to adopt a cardboard smile as strangers come to her home so soon after a loss, are presented as equally challenging as Neil’s flights.
Where one might expect audiences to take fault with Damien Chazelle and writer Josh Singer’s (Spotlight, The Post) approach to the material is in regards to technical aspects. The temptation to shoot outside of the vehicles and in space is hugely tempting, but Chazelle keeps most of the focus inside the cockpit. In the Gemini 8 scene, where Neil and David Scott (Christopher Abbott) are rocketing a spacecraft into orbit and successfully dock with the Agena. Thrusters on the Gemini and Agena both fired out of control, sending the connected spacecraft ships spinning. To preserve the sense of complete chaos, Chazelle places the jittery camera between Scott and Armstrong, never leaving the face of either man. Nearly dying, Neil is in his element, still possessing the wherewithal to calculate longhand trigonometry.
Such a choice is deliberate and understandable, but when a film so obviously made with IMAX in mind, chooses to focus on tight, close-ups for 2/3rds of the film, those who sprang for the premium format are likely to be disappointed. Still, when First Man does justify the IMAX setting, it is truly a sight to behold. After listening for every pop, crackle, and hiss of space flight, the total quiet of the moon is unnerving. The inky blacks and stark white of the moon’s landscape a beauty to behold on a magnificently large screen. Yet, even in the grand finale of First Man, Chazelle resists grand gestures, the emphasis is not on Armstrong’s communique with headquarters, but rather, Neil saying goodbye to his demons with the flick of his wrist.