First Man is not about the Apollo 11 mission. In a wonderful twist, Damien Chazelle has instead told an incredibly claustrophobic and personal melodrama with the close proximity of a John Cassavetes indie and the cosmosality of Terrence Malick. Still, the film fails to either fully address the ideology behind the space race or just ignore it, creating a sort of half-assed approach that is a bit distracting.
Chazelle’s film is based around Neil Armstrong’s journey through the Gemini and Apollo programs that ultimately led him to become the first man to step foot on the moon. The first part of the film, except for a prologue showing Armstrong (played with detached intensity by Ryan Gosling) barely managing to land a test aircraft, focuses on the astronaut’s private life and the death of his young daughter. This marks the pattern of the film, in which Armstrong defies death and reaches stress-inducing heights but is then forced to return to even more complicated dynamics at home. This sort of plot is not anything new, but Chazelle is able to take this sort of cliché and tweak it to make it his own. Unlike films like The Searchers or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, both of which deal with similar themes on the separation between adventure and exploration and a man’s responsibility to his family, First Man is centered in the personal emotional journey of the Armstrong family and not the fantastic undergoings of its male protagonist. I was struck less by the invigorating intensity of the space sequences in the film, but how our knowledge of Armstrong’s interior mind and emotions heightens the weight of the story. Chazelle grounds the story not in the adventure but the interior drama, making a film that is much more about healing from loss than the history of spaceflight.
Really, the first thought I had while watching Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong care for his dying daughter was to notice how close Chazelle gets. The characters are broken into close-ups: the eyes, the fingers, the hair. Rarely does the film move far beyond this scale, shooting in 16mm for many of the portions focusing on Neil Armstrong and Janet Shearon (played Claire Foy) while saving the much more publicized use of IMAX 70mm to the scenes in space. However, even these scenes retain this extreme intimacy. From what I can tell, all the shots during the Gemini 8 sequence in which Armstrong and his co-pilot almost die due to a technical malfunction come from a camera wedged inside the craft or visibly bolted to the outside. Other than some glorious shots during the final trip to the moon, Chazelle retains the same documentary aesthetic he uses when examining the Armstrong family. Despite being known more for the tight, highly orchestral cinematography of his last two outings, Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle avoids many mistakes directors make when adapting the documentary aesthetic to fiction films. For example, the Jason Bourne franchise and its acolytes use quick cuts and zooms and shaky cam to establish their documentary-esque “realism” while actual documentaries (or at least the cinéma vérité of filming characters inhabiting their everyday lives) often use single camera setups and log takes. Chazelle and his excellent cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s work here, recalls the feeling of the work of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus on Don’t Look Back or especially the Maysles brothers with Grey Gardens. Like that film, First Man uses its cinematography to place the viewer firmly inside the inner-circle of Armstrong, his colleagues, and his family. The whole movie almost feels like a crew of 60’s documentarians was following these characters into space and as their families on the ground dealt with the consequences of their adventure.
Still, the personal nature of the film creates some issues. 1969 and 1968, the years leading up to the moon landing were two of the most politically torrid years in American history. The Vietnam War was escalating, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, Kent State was a year away, and Nixon had just entered the White House. While a number of narratives could have dealt with this situation, Damien Chazelle seems to hit on a few of them while not committing to any overall statement about the moon landing except for the typical American and humanistic patriotism. The portions of the movie dealing with the external conflicts seem to be overly forced. There is a well-edited sequence of public criticism for the space program set to a rendition Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon,” a song/poem criticizing a nation that funds a massively expensive while ignoring poverty in African-American communities. However, this is placed within the film in a confusing and con-confrontational way and never really addressed further. The scene is a Forrest Gump-ian way of addressing the publicity problem that NASA faced, but without any substance or actual interest in that issue.
The film really isn’t interested in the question of if or why the moon landing was important or necessary, so the brief sequences dealing with that subject seem like an attempt on the part of the filmmakers to cover themselves. The achievements of Soviet cosmonauts are met by frustration by American astronauts in only one scene, and the arguments that the programs were too dangerous are explored more fully but only because this helps dive deeper into the sort of cosmic introspection Damien Chazelle is interested in. Chazelle seems to be worried about dealing with politics, which is not necessary for making a great film. However, when making a film about a costly and at times deadly government program that is today being criticized for many of the same things, a line of thought into why Nasa is important beyond the spiritual reasoning behind the film would be interesting and important.
Neil Armstrong, the character, seems more motivated by finding a reason to keep going than any sort of scientific reasoning. He says, “It allows us to see things that maybe we should have seen a long time ago,” when asked why spaceflight is important. This could refer to the realization of Earth’s small place in a vast Universe (as discussed in “Earthrise: What It’s Like to Escape Our Planet, a great short documentary released by the New York Times) or Armstrong’s own ability to continue living. Armstrong seems on the edge between calm connectedness and a depressed longing. With the beautiful searching and confident presence Gosling gives in his performance, he brings up thoughts of Daniel Day-Lewis’ turn as Lincoln. We are given no reason to think that Armstrong is anything like the Superman he is often viewed as in the American cultural unconscious. He makes mistakes, almost dies a number of times, and his aching pain after the death of his child is present in every shot.
In a way, this allows Chazelle to discuss Neil Armstrong as a sort of everyman for 1969. America had lost not one child but many. The problems at home were spiraling even deeper and the nation seemed to have a mental breakdown. Many cities were still rebuilding from riots during Apollo 11, and we are given a sense through use of archival footage to show the jubilant reaction of those on the ground, seeing America do something good for the first time in a long time. Through this, the movie does a good job of establishing the profound optimism of the moon landing. In one scene, characters read a real memo developed by the Nixon administration in case the landing had failed and Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had died on the moon. “For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come,” the statement concludes, “will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever.” First Man is about that dividing line, the one between optimism and pessimism, life and death that America was on in the late 60’s and still is.
Both America and Armstrong find meaning in space, though we are not told exactly what that meaning might be. But, maybe it isn’t up for us, or Chazelle to decide what that meaning is.