What would compel someone to take a potentially suicidal mission to the moon? Especially during a time when the Space Race was more palpable than ever? By the 1960s, Russia had already gone to space several times, while America continued to fail. It wasn’t until 1961 when space travel finally felt possible for the United States and NASA, but why a trip to the moon? Preposterous. Needless to say, it eventually happened.
Despite the incredible human achievement that landing on the moon was, Damien Chazelle’s First Man isn’t necessarily about Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s (played by Ryan Gosling and Corey Stoll, respectively) first time stepping onto the lunar surface. Instead, screenwriter Josh Singer tries to convey what brought the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, and the human effort and toll it required to make it happen. First Man contends with a grief-stricken Armstrong as he mourns the passing of his daughter, Karen, and is given the chance of a lifetime to help with the Gemini 8 mission, and eventually Apollo 11, all the while raising a family with his wife, Janet (Claire Foy).
There’s a lot to be said about Chazelle and Singer’s decision to focus on the deaths that lead Armstrong to take on the moon landing mission. First Man implies that grief is what pushed Neil to pursue the opportunity more and more. Gosling plays him with a similar reserve we’ve seen from him in the past, and once again it’s the kind of performance that isn’t showy, but fits well with the character arc being presented. It’s hard to grasp whether it truly is the death of his daughter at the beginning of the movie that drives Armstrong to achieve this seemingly impossible goal, but that’s the magic of the performance. As Neil withdraws from his friends and family, Gosling becomes emotionally hardened in one of his finest roles.
Contrast that to Claire Foy’s Janet, who stands by Neil throughout this endeavour, yet gets some explosive moments for Foy to bite into. Both her and Gosling are given meaty roles, each wrestling with similar emotions, but Janet definitely has more to address as she tries to be with someone like Neil when he is slowly turning away from everyone. It’s difficult to imagine being a grieving parent unless you’ve been through that ordeal, but Chazelle conveys it with such care and delicacy.
Of course, a movie about landing on the moon wouldn’t be complete without some intense spaceflight. First Man features some of the most beautifully shot and scored space scenes I’ve ever seen committed to film. Justin Hurwitz’s score isn’t always present, but when it appears, it soars. Accompanied by Linus Sandgren’s breathtaking cinematography, it is clear that Chazelle has found a creative team that he should really never part ways with.
First Man is a true technical marvel.
From claustrophobic shots inside the space shuttles to the wide-sweeping vistas of space, Sandgren captures both the intensity and the beauty of NASA’s expeditions. It exemplifies why space travel matters to so many, but also the toll it can take to achieve the dream. Tom Cross helps Chazelle for the third time with editing, and he stitches together both of the extremes Chazelle is trying to convey in an almost rhythmic fashion. The sounds of the engines blasting off and thrusting into space, combined with quick cuts and shaky cameras, intensify the experience; First Man demands the biggest screen and loudest speakers. It gives Interstellar a run for its money on pure spectacle alone, not to mention also carries a very strong heart.
First Man is a true technical marvel. It hums and roars like all the best space movies, but below the stratosphere is a community that came together to achieve the impossible. When Chazelle goes into full-blockbuster mode, it almost seems effortless. Most importantly, he returns to the core of his film and justifies the hard work put into a mission of this magnitude. Instead of simply delivering a blockbuster spectacle about a hero we already know, Chazelle gives us a universal appreciation for the potential of humanity, even in our darkest times.
- Christopher Cross