First Man (2018)
“First Man” opens on a darkened silhouette in a spacecraft shaking violently upon reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. There are flashes of rapidly ticking altimeters, the planet’s curvature, and Ryan Gosling’s resolute eyes. It’s the first hint that in adapting the story of America’s first lunar landing for the big screen, director Damien Chazelle is interested first and foremost in getting the experiential details right.
Like many space movies before it, “First Man” wants to make it feel like you’re really there, and cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s photography does an outstanding job of that, both on Earth and the moon. Unlike other space movies, it does so by focusing just as much on space travel’s mundanities as on its disquieting wonder. In one quick but memorable scene, for example, Gosling as Neil Armstrong swats at a fly in the shuttle while awaiting one of his preliminary takeoffs.
Many of the movie’s most striking details, however, are reserved for the other side of Armstrong’s experiences in reaching the moon. Immediately after the opening rough landing sequence, we see a montage of his home life shot with rich ‘60s period detail and the grainy, sun-dappled aesthetic of old home videos.
Following a shattering death in the family—beautifully conveyed by a single cut—Armstrong learns he’s been grounded at his private test piloting job and decides to apply for NASA’s Project Gemini, which his wife Janet (Claire Foy) calls “a new start.” Chazelle’s reading of the subject matter renders this a story less about NASA’s collective efforts in getting to the moon and more about Armstrong’s personal journey there, and he connects the astronaut’s fanatical drive most strongly to a desire to outrun personal tragedy.
In some sense, the “Whiplash” and “La La Land” director’s third film is yet another look at the sacrifices made to achieve greatness or fulfill a dream. In this case, Armstrong—played by Gosling as the technical-minded embodiment of midcentury male stoicism—isn’t after greatness or a place in the history books, but more the sense of “expanded perspective” he feels upon seeing the planet from above.
Thus, his resolution remains even as the sacrifices start to mount, between his children growing up without him and a series of fellow pilots dying during test flights. Despite the film’s personal focus, Chazelle doesn’t shy away from presenting the Space Race as the geopolitical dick measuring contest it really was, and Armstrong’s sunk cost fallacy-driven determination certainly plays into the perception that NASA’s space program of the time was, as Janet puts it at one point, “a bunch of boys building boats out of balsawood.”
When the film does occasionally abandon its first-person approach, it’s generally to shift focus onto Foy and the other marginalized astronaut wives—exchanging neighborhood welcome packages as their husbands discuss rocket propulsion—or to highlight alternate perceptions of NASA’s expensive Apollo program. One montage of countercultural opposition to the government program shows interview footage of Kurt Vonnegut critiquing the war and contemporary soul singer Leon Bridges reciting Gil-Scott Heron’s pointed “Whitey’s on the Moon.”
Thus, Armstrong’s unwillingness to engage and work-imposed estrangement from family becomes symptomatic of 1960s America’s inability to prioritize the needs and lives of its citizenry over purely competitive, aspirational exercises like landing on the moon. One shot perfectly illustrates this theme in visual terms—as the camera racks focus to glimpse the moon through a series of street-lit tree branches, everything in the foreground seems to fade away.
So was the moon landing really worth all that went into it? Is this a story of heroic determination or foolish male obstinacy? I’d say “First Man” works precisely because it isn’t sure. Sacrifices or not, the feat itself was undoubtedly inspiring to the world over, and the disquieting scenes on the moon’s surface (featuring the original recording of Armstrong’s voice) utilize even more tactile imagery to better put audiences in Armstrong’s space shoes. The shuttle sequences, meanwhile, wring tension from every mechanical malfunction and in-the-moment problem solving exercise without belaboring a story whose end we all already know.
With Armstrong and co-pilot Buzz Aldrin (played by Corey Stoll as kind of a callous jerk) in quarantine after the mission, it’s President Kennedy who gets the last word on why go to the moon and strive for other nigh-impossible feats: “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Was that reason enough to justify the mission? I’m not sure either, but at the very least, we got a pretty great movie out of it.