Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) brings to the screen the story of the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong. Chazelle’s most mature—and brilliant—work to date, First Man takes confident liberties in turning the biopic into a dismal, oftentimes frightening, tale of a reluctant hero.
There is not a smidgen of excitement, or sense of adventure, in this intentionally bleak and unnerving biopic.
The film’s gloomy, depressive tone gives First Man its edge and genius. Chazelle, teamed up with Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight), possesses us with Armstrong’s character (played excellently by Ryan Gosling) and setting up an intensely intimate vantage point of the man fated to take that giant leap for mankind.
There is not a smidgen of excitement, or sense of adventure, in this intentionally bleak and unnerving biopic. Lose your anticipation of a fun, escapist fare, as First Man has one singular concern: Armstrong. Not his achievements, not his special qualities—but Armstrong as a human, merely ferried by circumstances.
One can call the film understated and nuanced. Gosling’s Armstrong is a man of few words, deflecting attention and limelight, and is cold and detached from his wife Janet (a very good Claire Foy) and two boys. But his quietness bristles with emotions; we can only guess what’s running in his mind, but we sense his stoicism and quickly empathize with him.
Singer’s script was adapted from James R. Hansen’s critically acclaimed and authorized biographical novel First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, and it allows us to scrutinize Armstrong on our own, barely giving the man sentences to speak.
The movie depicts the years 1961 to 1969, opening with Armstrong as a test pilot inside the cramped cockpit of the X-15. Right then and there, you realize that this film is intent on putting you in Armstrong’s shoes, providing you a hyperrealistic point-of-view of space traveling.
And so you immediately find yourself claustrophobically inside the X-15, the camera wildly shaking, your vision darting to various cockpit switches and gauges and screws, and to the two tiny windows overlooking a blurry patch of sky. It’s so realistic, tensing, and panic-inducing that I had to look away from the screen and remind myself that I was inside a theater and not in an X-15.
Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren bring a raw, gritty style to the biopic. No fantastical visual effects— just an intimate, documentary treatment to the years leading to the Moon landing. The realistic treatment, complete with a muted, grainy palette and exemplary sound design, provides a deeply immersive experience. Watching it in a high-quality cinema with superior audio is a requirement.
If the camera is not focused on the unpredictable mood of a spacecraft—a stark reminder of how these man-made vessels can kill you in a blink of an eye—it gives plenty of close-up shots of pairs of eyes—fearful, worried, thinking eyes, which offer us a stronger emotional connection to the characters and to the moment.
But sometimes the camera pulls away to allow us to witness life through the eyes of Armstrong; him glancing at the moon from his backyard, riding the NASA elevator at dusk, or stroking the hair of his terminally ill toddler daughter Karen (Lucy Brooke Stafford)—which is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in recent memory—and we become one with his mental and emotional state.
Death consistently looms over the film—from the anxious ruminations on mortality inside the homes of the astronauts, to the dangerous test-piloting and takeoffs, to a series of astronaut fatalities. But it is Karen’s death that sticks with you until the end, making you wonder whether Armstrong’s determination to fly to the Moon is a form of escape, or to end his pain; that if the Apollo 11 mission fails and he dies, it’s also going to be his redemption.
The film is controversial for omitting the flag-planting on the Moon, but this only proves that First Man is all about Armstrong’s perspective and that America winning the Space Race may be the farthest from his mind. Perhaps even unimportant to him.
But no matter how remarkably crafted this despondent and terrifying piece of cinema is, you can’t help but feel that it reduces space exploration as an unnecessary deadly gamble with life. This takes away the wonder and thrill of space travel, which is disconcerting. If you’ve ever aspired to become an astronaut, this movie might kill that dream.
The film portrays the lives of astronauts as disposable; heroic space soldiers signed up to die as soon as they are strapped inside the cockpit. So when Armstrong finally lands on the lunar surface, after all those perilous and deadly NASA situations, it no longer feels like an accomplishment, but simply Armstrong surviving.
First Man also implies that space travel is a big waste of money, which is humorously expressed in the film’s only upbeat sequence: footages of a public protest against the cool, sardonic Gil Scott-Heron song “Whitey on the Moon.”
The Moon landing feels anticlimactic, with the lunar surface looking fake, with the quality of a virtual reality game. And when Armstrong uttered his famous line, there’s a kitschy feel to it. It suddenly becomes off character, too, considering he doesn’t speak much in the film.
Despite the few and minor disappointments, First Man is still powerfully resonant, with a beautifully odd perspective. Instead of focusing on the spectacle and the makings of an extraordinary astronaut, and reimagining NASA’s great feat, the film instead parts the curtains to give us an authentic view of the dark side of space travel and the human side of a legend.
3.5 out of 5 stars