As a kid growing up in Iowa I attended school in a district where all of the grade schools were named for Astronauts. I attended Virgil Grissom Elementary School fully unaware of who the crew-cutted man in the space suit was until I was several years into school attendance. When we visited other schools in our district we visited Ed White Elementary, John Glenn Elementary and Neil Armstrong Elementary.
Growing up, I assumed all schools were named for famous astronauts and I was surprised to learn that wasn’t the case in most other districts. I mention this as a way of leading into just how ingrained in our collective culture our astronaut heroes were. The movie First Man, much like 1983’s The Right Stuff, illustrates that that fascination has not waned even as the wonder of space travel has diminished.
First Man stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the first man to step foot on the Moon. We pick up Neil’s story as he grazes the top of the atmosphere in an experimental aircraft. This opening sequence is aimed at setting you up for the twisting and turning, borderline violent, way in which director Damien Chazelle captures the action. The opening scene is visceral, queasy and scary insight into the dangers we will face as the space race gets underway.
It’s not just the queasiness of space travel however, we also experience the ups and downs of marriage and family life. Claire Foy plays Janet Armstrong, Neil’s wife, a tough as nails lady who refused to let Neil off the hook for his stoic, guarded and standoffish manner. Janet’s love comes through in her toughness and not through a lot of teary bleary worrying. She has a confidence in her husband that is rarely rattled.
When that confidence is rattled however, as we see in a brilliant scene in which Janet confronts Neil’s NASA boss and former astronaut, Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), we witness a fearsome and brave moment. Commander Slayton ordered the radio on board Neil’s first space flight silenced to the world outside the control room and an upset Janet drove to Cape Canaveral to make him turn it back on. Claire Foy is ferocious in this moment and director Chazelle smartly lets her shine.
Directors live for scenes like this, moments where their actors capture a moment in time so perfectly. Claire Foy is so natural, so authentic, and unforced in this moment. It's a small scale scene but nearly as breathless for me as the Moon landing moment. The line 'you're just a bunch of boys' hits like a sledgehammer as, like it or not, she's not wrong. For all the know how and ingenuity on hand at NASA in the 60s and into today, space travel is never mundane, it's a razors edge between glorious achievement and horrific disaster.
All of First Man is leading up to the trip to the Moon. But first, Neil has to train and the program has a lot of tests to complete before the first manned mission to the Moon can get off the ground. The middle portion of First Man is taken up with training scenes and the strain at Neil Armstrong’s home stemming from the death of Neil and Janet’s two year old daughter, Karen, whose spectral premise is something Neil tries desperately to keep at bay while maintaining the stoicism he comes to be known for.
The final act of First Man is the Moon landing and it is remarkably well-captured. The style employed by director Damien Chazelle is intimate and claustrophobic. There are no cutaways back to NASA, few cutaways back to Janet, for the most part, we are trapped in the capsure with Neil and Buzz Aldrin and their pilot Michael Collins and it’s breathtaking to witness. This is a remarkable recreation of an event most Americans have seen in some form or fashion, either having lived it or watched it in documentary form, but Chazelle somehow makes it feel new and vibrant.
You will feel as if you are on the Moon during the Moon landing scenes of First Man. The incredible rumble and noise of the rocket, the fiery burst through the atmosphere into outer space, and the desolation of the lunar surface are all brilliantly captured and while we can’t ever really know what it was like ourselves, First Man brings us closer than we’ve ever been to this momentous piece of history.
Controversy surrounded First Man from its festival debut earlier this year. It became known that the movie does not depict the famous planting of the American flag on the Moon which led to rumors that the film was downplaying patriotism in the race to the Moon. That’s not the case; flags are prominent throughout First Man and Neil Armstrong was inspired by America continually getting beaten by Russia to make sure that an American made the first tracks on the Moon.
That said, yes, the flag being planted is not part of the Moon landing sequence. The idea is not to minimize America but to remind everyone that as much as this was an American achievement, the first steps on the Moon were a global moment that all people came together to witness and take pride in. The world paused to see man’s first steps on the Moon and so not depicting the flag planting is a style choice intended to demonstrate that this was more of a human accomplishment than merely an American one.
I absolutely adore First Man. Ryan Gosling delivers a brilliant performance, one that flies in the face of his previous personaes. Gosling is an actor of tremendous wit and charm and here, stripped of those assets by a real life figure that people recall as anything but witty or charming, Gosling demonstrates range. He focuses his performance on the dignity and carriage of Neil Armstrong. Armstrong was a deeply guarded individual who rarely showed emotion. That makes it all the more powerful during a pair of scenes where the mask falls away as he mourns his daughter and his fallen friends in the space program, Ed White, Virgil Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Elliott Sea.
First Man is a first rate movie made by a visionary and deeply talented director. Damien Chazelle is developing a mastery of form that places him among the most talented directors in the world. He’s a consistently entertaining and thoughtful director who follows his muse to unique and fascinating places. His world’s are filled with small details of manner and conversation that invite you into strange, obsessive conclaves like the Jazz-perfectionists of Whiplash or the entertainment industry inside La La Land, inside which we share in the earnest fascination of outsiders.
First Man is in theaters nationwide this weekend.