At first glance, a Neil Armstrong biopic might seem like a peculiar choice for Damien Chazelle, coming off the heels of his deeply personal one-two punch of Whiplash and La La Land. Those films, as well as his 2009 debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, are all defined by Chazelle’s musical inclinations, clear offshoots of his time as a jazz drummer at Princeton High School, when he still had dreams of becoming a career musician. But dig a little deeper and another thematic through-line quickly becomes evident: that of the focused dreamer, whose talent and desire to achieve greatness comes at the cost of their personal relationships. It is under this lens that the equally quiet and bombastic First Man becomes a logical continuation of Chazelle’s young career. He may have swapped out the song and dance numbers for rocket ships, but the level of refined craftsmanship he’s known for remains on full display.
The film opens in 1961, on a thrilling sequence that sets the tone for what’s to come. As Neil reaches the edge of outer space in the experimental X-15 spacecraft, he marvels at the soft blue glow of Earth framed against the darkness of space. In that moment, everything feels right in the world. But then something goes wrong: instead of descending like expected, he begins to rise even more, bouncing off the atmosphere. Needless to say, he survives, but not without some haphazard improvisation and an overwhelming sense of tension that almost defies history; as viewers, we know Neil is going to live, but the lengths Chazelle goes to make it seem like he won’t are incredibly effective. And the stakes only get higher as the movie progresses. Each and every scene involving space is a harrowing, edge-of-your-seat set piece that slots right alongside the likes of 2001, Gravity, and Interstellar. With all the creaking metal, bone-rattling propulsion systems, and unexpected technical difficulties, space travel has rarely been depicted so dangerously.
What viewers probably don’t know is that Neil was a man in constant mourning, dogged by frequents deaths of his friends and fellow pilots, and most importantly, the loss of his two-year old daughter Karen to cancer. Her death opens up a wound inside him that never heals, and that pain is what drives him to apply for NASA’s Apollo program. In a show of classic masculinity, he keeps it completely bottled up, daring to cry only in private. This drives a wedge between him and his wife Janet (Claire Foy), as he comes increasingly disconnected from her and their two sons. The central conflict isn’t so much that he doesn’t love them, but that he doesn’t know how to live with them. Gosling has made a name for himself as an actor of few words, his quiet nature and trademarked blank stare capable of conveying a range of inner turmoil. As such he’s a natural fit to portray the reserved astronaut, imbuing Neil with the stoicism of a natural born leader and the withdrawn silence of a man teetering on the edge of depression.
With Neil devoted to his work, that leaves Janet at home with the kids most of the time. Her grief is just as apparent, though the film doesn’t spend quite as much time on her as Foy’s commanding performance deserves. As the program’s body count rises, we see the toll that isolation and anxiety bring up on her. Every mission could be a pilot’s last, and as aforementioned, the film holds no punches in this regard; that sense of physical punishment is transferred psychologically to their wives and family members. Despite this, Janet is forced to maintain a strong face in light of Neil’s familial deficiencies. So it feels very triumphant when, near the end of the film, she finally lays into him for his neglect. Foy’s fiery delivery of the scene legitimately made me fist pump in the theater.
Thankfully it’s not always gloomy, with kind neighbors, pool parties, and summer barbecues offering small pockets of joy in between the danger. At one point the film even slips into Terrence Malick-mode, with sweeping handheld shots of Neil playing with his kids in their mid-century suburban household that feel ripped straight out of The Tree of Life. The combination of the idyllic setting and DP Linus Sandgren’s 16mm photography evokes a bygone era, complete with nostalgic throwbacks and patriotic flourishes that some might find too overtly conservative, which makes the whole flag-planting controversy from earlier in the year seem like an even bigger embarrassment. After one successful mission, a character even says “Call the Soviets—tell ’em to go fuck themselves!”
The 16mm also comes in handy during the film’s many cockpit shots, narrowing in on the claustrophobic conditions of the enclosed spaces. It makes the jump to IMAX footage, which was used for the moon landing sequence, all the more impactful. Suddenly we are thrust from tight, compact imagery to the wide open vistas of space, and the results are breathtaking. Bolstering the proceedings is a triumphant score courtesy of Justin Hurwitz, who has served as the composer on all of Chazelle’s work.
As someone who knew practically nothing about Armstrong or the Apollo program, First Man kept me engaged throughout. On a structural level it’s a standard biopic, and while it might not encompass every aspect of arguably man’s most impressive scientific accomplishment, neglecting for instance the women of color who aided the project as shown in Hidden Figures, the talent of everyone onboard elevates the material into an exhilarating tale of perseverance and denial in the face of overwhelming grief. Gosling gives perhaps his best performance yet, Foy maintains her current golden trajectory, and Chazelle proves he can operate outside of his wheelhouse. Get ready for a new astronaut classic.