Review: Damien Chazelle Tells Neil Armstrong’s Personal Ascent to the Moon in 'First Man'
From the opening moments of First Man, director Damien Chazelle tells you everything you need to know for the journey in store for you. In what can be described as upfront and personal, the self-contain thesis launches you straight into the perilous space race with a sense of tension, doubt, and danger that will characterize Neil Armstrong’s journey for the rest of the film. That journey is not only about the spectacle of the moon landing itself and its importance in human history, but also the intimate story of the man who did it and emotional voyage he makes.
First Man is a film which consciously realizes the wonder of space while presenting the cost of it all. Through the eyes of Neil Armstrong, Chazelle shows us what it took to get to the moon. This is not a textbook rendition of the 1969 accomplishment, but rather a delineation that focuses on the trials and tribulations it took to get there. First Man is both a biopic and an odyssey; it is an epic that tells one of humankind’s greatest achievements through a concentrated personal story, and in a riveting manor, Chazelle aligns both the grand and minute to create a truly theatrical experience.
The film tracks Armstrong’s life for nearly a decade as we follow his life from aerospace pilot to Apollo 11 astronaut. In-between, audiences get a down to Earth story about Armstrong, his family, and the emotional burden they face as they navigate one of the most emotionally taxing periods in their life. Having to choose between the lure of space, national duty, and his domestic life, Armstrong grapples with the harrowing task that may end up going too far for him and his family.
This is very much Armstrong’s story. Everything we feel and know is told through his perspective. Played reservedly by Ryan Gosling, Armstrong comes off as emotionally boxed in, trying to maintain his composure for everyone around him, but never knowing his fate for himself. Deaths of friends and co-pilots offer heavy handed reminders that failure comes at a high price and that what he is doing puts just as much emotional burden on his loved ones as it does on him. Conveying this sentiment is Claire Foy’s Janet who is the wife to Armstrong; while Armstrong is off in space, she is left on the ground to deal with the emotional fallout and uncertainty that surrounds her husband’s fate. Foy arguably has the most range on display as she portrays a concerned wife who is frustrated yet supportive. It toes a fine line, but Foy is the character who best represents the emotional impact this journey has with the film’s most personal and meaningful moments stemming from the relationship between Janet and Neil.
Grounding this is the pairing of domestic and civic life. The film often likes to pit one against the other and positions Armstrong in-between them. Showing small intimate moments like neighborhood barbecues, family roughhousing, or slow dancing to Lunar Rhapsody are ways in which First Man reminds us that Armstrong is a human being, not just some historical figure. But knowingly, this human being is at the center of one of the most iconic and historic events in human history. Contrary to what Marco Rubio may ignorantly tweet, this film hones in on the space race as a national and global achievement. Armstrong is compelled in inexplicable ways to push him and his family further and further in the face of death to achieve goals that are removed from his domestic life. This pairing of civic and domestic life is a central dynamic to the film’s narrative that grounds Armstrong and makes the actual landing on the moon that much more meaningful.
The film has a very distinct look that deviates from Chazelle’s prior films. Working with cinematographer Linus Sandgren for the second time, the film adopts a hand held style of shooting that gets personal with Armstrong. Mobile tracking shots, narrow close ups, and abundant camera shake can be found throughout the film, but this is not just a stylistic choice. It’s something that directly translates into audience alignment with Armstrong. As mentioned before, this film is about Armstrong. We are in his shoes and the camera works placates to how we see him straddle between family man and space traveler. Close ups waver as doubt builds internally surrounding the mission. A spastic camera confines itself to the cockpit of the shuttle so we experience the launches strictly from Armstrong’s view. And a tracking camera moves and reframes much like you would expect with eyesight or an aligned perspective. The cinematography at play is very important to how we see and sympathize with Armstrong, and it is one of the most predominant aspects of this film. Perhaps a strong contender for Best Cinematography at the Oscars, but nonetheless a very effective use of substantive shooting style.
The moments when Chazelle launches us into space make especially good use of this style. Three times we are brought up above the atmosphere and each time is special for different reasons, but in particular, the second go is really an awe inspiring display of cinema. During said sequence, Armstrong goes up in to test the docking capabilities of a space craft, and for about 25 minutes, you are graced with an incredibly well realized display of danger that cross cuts between the space module and the broadcast on earth. It is without a doubt a superbly executed sequence that has insurmountable tension and palpable emotion that drips from every inch of the frame, and one in which I cannot separate from the overall film. If there were one scene to take away from this film, it may very well be this one.
The moon landing itself is the third and final trip up into space, and it too has much to be discussed. With the outcome already known, it is inconsequential to layer tension in this scene. While there is some placed on the decent, Chazelle has turned the moon landing into a personal moment which is contained within a larger, more global achievement. The success of moon landing not only becomes the climax of the film, but also the emotional one as we see the payoff of all the sacrifice and loss that resulted from the journey. The humankind achievement is just as important as the emotional one found in Armstrong and the two are so eloquently conveyed as equals when the film slows down and breaks with its stylings so that you too may feel the reprieve of the monumental task of landing on the moon.
On all fronts, First Man is a well executed biopic about one man’s odyssey to the moon. By grounding Armstrong to his family, Chazelle has made the ascent a personal story that is full of heart, danger, and tension that is unlike space films before. In an era when mid-tier budgeted films are becoming an oddity, it is films like First Man that remind us how important they are to creating engrossing pieces of cinema.