Let’s get it out of the way: First Man is full of American flags, rendering the controversy regarding its presumed erasure of American achievements moot. It’s a movie that’s firmly rooted in patriotism, even if that’s the least interesting part of it.
Director Damien Chazelle’s transporting and exhilarating space drama (sans jazz!), centered around the life and achievements of astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), has its fair share of “race to the moon” tension. The Soviets have won every battle in the war for space exploration, and the clock is ticking on America’s chance to catch up. But First Man is at its strongest when focusing on purely human moments, whether it’s the intimate gesture of Armstrong stroking his dying daughter’s feathery blonde hair, or the almost wordless emotion and awe he feels as he first sets eyes on the moon up close, after staring at it from afar for so long.
But though the moon — both as a symbol and a physical planet — looms large over the events portrayed, it’s ultimately only a small part of this story, which is much wider in scope than the July 20, 1969 landing.
The action begins in 1961, with Armstrong hurtling out away from Earth in a some sort of precarious contraption that looks more like a plane than a rocket. We get a sense of his quick, but meticulous thinking when, upon return, his craft bounces off the atmosphere, but also of the terrifying potential consequences of space exploration. The prospect of death is one astronauts must make peace with.
Armstrong makes it back, but his home life is no less grim. His infant daughter, Karen, suffers from a brain tumor, and the doctors have warned him and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) that there’s nothing more they can do. Chazelle lingers on one particular moment between father and daughter, which is moving the first time around, but takes on far more significance from repetition through memories scattered across the film. It’s a loss that proves formative for Armstrong, who decides to apply for a new NASA initiative requiring pilots with engineering backgrounds. Their goal? To land on the moon by the end of the decade.
One of the difficulties inherent in creating a drama based on such a well-known historical event is that you know the ending going in. (Hidden Figures recently upended the narrative by focusing on the Black women so often left out of history, but that's the exception, rather than the rule.) We know that the Americans will prevail and land on the moon before the Russians do. We know that Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll, who really excels at playing assholes) will make it back safely. So, how to sustain the tension and suspense required for a two and a half hour runtime to feel earned rather than forced? In this case, the answer is to take it down to nuts and bolts — literally.
Chazelle skillfully limits his space scenes to what the astronauts are experiencing in real-time. Don’t expect panoramas of shooting stars and vivid planets; that’s not what they see. Locked in a precariously tiny shuttle that shakes so much it seems like it might shatter at any second, Armstrong and his colleagues’ vision of space is far more about beeping monitors, and aluminum doors lined with something that looks suspiciously like duct tape, than the glory of the sun and other stars. You kind of assume they’ve made it into space when the blue glow of the atmosphere fades to black darkness. Every sound (or lack thereof — the early scenes on the moon are eerily silent), every shot is designed to make you wonder: ‘Did we really send people to space (space!) in those rinky dink tin cans?’
It’s the details that make you appreciate the unfathomable. Justin Hurwitz’s (who also wrote the music for La La Land) score mirrors that ethos, starting off with quiet melodies that eventually swell into a sweeping, cosmic anthem as Neil gets within one small step of his final goal.
Gosling plays Armstrong as a stoic, the type of man who feels deeply, but is unable — or unwilling — to connect to others. The strain of that repression is evident in every relationship he has, from his wife, who is quietly bearing the burden of their shared loss, and the prospect of another looming every time her husband heads in to work, or his colleagues, with whom he shares a rare bond (that been-to-space thing). One of those men, played by an always excellent Jason Clarke, is a great foil for Armstrong. When Edward (Clarke) tells Neil that he’s just so proud of his son asking questions about physics and space, it highlights just how little we see the latter interact with his sons. Even when he’s home, he’s not — whether out of a sense of grief about the child he loss, or some 1950s male attitude that his job is to work to provide, and not much else. It’s a perfect character for someone who can communicate purely with soulful glances, eyebrow arches, and half smiles, and that’s Gosling’s sweet spot.
As Janet, Foy takes a character that could have been dismally flat and works wonders. The final scene between her and Gosling is completely wordless, and packs an emotional punch as strong as if they’d been yelling. She’s proud of her husband’s important work, but she’s also tired of going through the necessary motions of earth-bound life by herself. Foy’s evolution from strong, silent and supportive to seething with anger is subtle and powerful. The moment when she finally breaks, right as Neil is about to head out for the mission that would eventually yield the moon landing, is almost certainly a clip that will play before her name is called at the Oscars.
First Man is a love letter to the scope of human ambition, but is also conscious of its limits. Josh Singer’s script doesn’t gloss over the more controversial aspects of the space program, nor its detractors, whose concerns — that the money could be put to better use towards eradicating hunger and poverty on Earth, for example — are given fair consideration. But it’s hard to deny the sense of pride and wonder that comes with seeing determination and grit pay off in the pursuit of human curiosity, and the bittersweet realization that those days may be behind us.