Directed by Damien Chazelle
When Apollo 11 hurdles its way to the lunar surface the camera remains inside the module, cramped in there along with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Other movies would cross cut between the two astronauts, the Houston control room and Armstrong’s nervous wife, Janet, but First Man doesn’t give us such breathing room or perspective.
Damien Chazelle’s movie takes an intimate, claustrophobic look at this death-defying effort to reach the moon. The film is shot on handheld 16 mm, deliberately resembling a documentary made in a run and gun style. This manner of shooting helps strip the film of any gloss and both humanizes and muddies the story behind the moon landing.
Coming away from this movie you’re meant to be impressed by Armstrong’s accomplishment (not to mention the achievements of those he worked with), but you’re also meant to consider the possible recklessness that got several men killed and the use of taxpayer money on such an expensive mission while so much turmoil played out back at home.
In the middle of this is Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), playing just as single minded a protagonist as in Chazelle’s last two movies, 2014’s Whiplash and 2016’s La La Land. These are characters who struggle to compartmentalize their own ambition. It bleeds into every other aspect of their lives and, in most cases, prevents them from truly being happy until they climb this mountain in front of them.
Such aspirations harken back to what we think makes humans great, that drive to accomplish something just to do it. It’s a drive that seems impossible to live with until the fruits of your labor bear out in the end. The characters of Chazelle’s movies get to see that moment, the payoff for all their hard work, but many people aren’t so lucky.
First Man is wonderful, at least I think so. It’s gripping and interesting as we delve into Armstrong’s complicated psychology. It’s his story more than NASA’s, and that means the final cathartic note (apart from landing on the moon) has to do with his own personal story more than that of America’s or the world’s. The moon landing brought so many people together (particular as it’s juxtaposed with such a tumultuous time including the Vietnam War, the Manson murders soon after, Chappaquiddick, and the MLK and RFK assassinations of 1968), but this story is very focused on Armstrong as a person. The dramatic question has to do with what kind of insane person would willingly to submit to space travel in such rickety, tiny, somewhat untested space modules?
The movie does a great job at making you feel as claustrophobic as the astronauts must’ve felt. Their is a great deal of “shakycam,” but here it feels organic to the story being told. Many people will write it off immediately as the latest in a fairly recent cinematographic fad, but how else can you convey the forces acting on you at such high altitude? Of course Armstrong’s plane or shuttle would be thrashing about in the ways that it does.
It may be a little disorienting, but we watch Armstrong pass out after one particular test which has him spinning in all directions. This movie shouldn’t look as neat and calm as the cinematography of a Wes Anderson movie. It should be chaotic and disorienting.
This will contrast greatly with the final sequence when Armstrong does land on the moon. All of that handheld action moves into much more fluid, pleasant IMAX shots of space and the great beyond. The sound design, of course, helps differentiate these two modes of shooting, and it works to create an amazing sense of tranquility when Armstrong has finally gone where no one else has before.
Most movies will try and make you feel something, and sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. What First Man wanted for its audience was exactly what I felt. It worked on me where something like A Star is Born (which has worked wonderfully for so many people) didn’t. That’s not to say one is objectively better than the other bust just that some spells work and some don’t.
I desperately want to see this movie again. The story is a little long and perhaps a little slow at times, but it fits with the Armstrong character and his nature. He’s aloof and at times off-putting, and much of the curiosity of this film is in watching and studying him like a science project. Who is this man who would be so driven to do something so insane, particularly as his survival is hardly guaranteed?
This type of character could in no way be like you or me, and just because they’re not always happy or funny, that doesn’t mean they aren’t a worthwhile character to follow around for two hours.
Another movie I recently saw is David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun. I love Lowery’s movies, and I enjoyed much of the film, but there was a divide between the movie’s style/tone and the underlying story. It’s the story of a career bank robber whose selfish actions negatively affect some of the people around him, namely his daughter. That movie doesn’t much reckon with the human cost of the protagonist’s behavior.
First Man does give time and attention to the consequences of Armstrong’s actions. One of the best scenes comes late in the movie when Janet (Claire Foy) forces him to sit down and tell his two sons the risks attached to what he’s about to do. It forces the character, who in another version of the story would be perfect and likable, to confront his own actions. He may understand what he’s doing, but there is an undeniable selfishness to the practice, and almost as a form of penance he must simply acknowledge and accept it.
In other words this movie doesn’t simply let him off the hook. First Man celebrates such an insane human accomplishment but gives attention to the faults and consequences of reaching for such stars. In order to attain this kind of glory, something must be given up in the process.
Up Next: The Old Man & the Gun (2018), Mid90s (2018), The Fog (1980)