There was a time when going to the moon was considered the scariest thing a human could possibly do. Despite the wonder surrounding the first men to land on another planet, the build-up to that moment was full of death, fear, failure and doubt. The people trying to do it didn’t know if it could be done and the people watching it almost didn’t want it to happen. It appeared that going to the moon, one of the most important moments in human history that captured the hearts of millions from around world, was a no-win situation for anyone involved. But Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration all tried.
The same can be said for Damien Chazelle, the Oscar-winning director who tried to turn the crippling anxiety and fear that Armstrong experienced in his journey to taking one small step for man into a film. Two years removed from the safe, smooth, scintillating showcase of La La Land, Chazelle returns with the polar opposite experience with the big, brash, blistering First Man that tells the story of Armstrong’s seven-year road to commanding the Apollo 11 mission. Though he smiled and waved for cameras before boarding the shuttle in 1969, Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) was in a dark place when the Apollo 11 mission was coming together. After his two-year-old daughter Karen died in 1962 from pneumonia, Armstrong tried to find solace in his work by piloting for NASA. Under the command of NASA Chief Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) and with the friendly comradery of fellow pilots Ed White (Jason Clarke) and Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), Armstrong and a handful of others have their physical and intellectual talents tested to see how a man could get to the moon. That big gray rock in space looms over the pilots and scientists and Armstrong himself like a haunting ghost creeping in on their lives. It also haunts Armstrong’s wife, Janet (Claire Foy), who starts to see the dangers of the mission more and more as the years went on.
Of all the words one would think a biopic of Neil Armstrong would be, “intense” was probably not one of them. It’s fitting that the first shot in the first trailer for First Man was of plexiglass violently vibrating from the force of one of the shuttles taking off since the movie itself looks like it’s constantly shaking. A viewer could count the number of still shots in this 141-minute movie on one hand, with the rest shot either from Armstrong’s point-of-view or with handheld camerawork. What Chazelle seems to be going for is for the audience to feel the constant unease that Armstrong and those around felt at the time leading up to the mission. He wants the audience to feel the claustrophobic anxiety of physically being in flight with a particularly unnerving scene when the Gemini 8 shuttle spun wildly out of control nearly killing Armstrong. Chazelle’s intent is clear and commendations are warranted for what he pulled off for a two-plus hour movie, but audience members won’t be able to appreciate it from the headaches to ensue from the viewing. The near-constant shaky cam is nauseating and headache-inducing, pulling the viewer out of the movie (perhaps literally so they can go throw up in the bathroom or take a quick aspirin). The Gemini 8 sequence in particular feels like it should come with a warning for people with epilepsy considering the fast-flashing imagery and Justin Hurwitz’s blasting score.
Which is a shame because while the shooting-style seems unfocused, the story is not. The script by Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) based off James R. Hansen’s book has the right amount of focus on the science of the moon mission and detail of Armstrong’s personal life. It’s interesting to see how close the other astronauts were with each other living in the same neighborhood while also competing to be the first man on the moon. The movie is as much about Armstrong as it is about the people who surrounded him at the time and informed his feelings about the moon mission. Singer’s script shows the growing pressure mounted on Armstrong that added more gravity (no pun intended) to the mission, whether it be from his colleagues or average Americans not seeing the value of spending money on rocket ships. For a movie that has caused controversy over its lack of Dollar Store patriotism, it was wise of the movie to show how American citizens first thought the idea of space travel was a waste of time and money. Even Janet Armstrong gets her side of the story shown and slowly but surely feels the weight of potentially watching her husband explode in the sky. As big and heady as the filmmaking of First Man is, it’s mostly redeemed by the storytelling and emphasis on character.
Even more fortunately is the fact that those characters are played by actors at the top of their game. Though Gosling trades in his smooth-talking charisma for a more restrained performance, his poise and patient line delivery makes for a magnetic screen presence. Gosling clearly understood what was hanging over Armstrong’s head but also knew what was crushing him in his heart. There’s equal parts heroism and hurt in Gosling’s portrayal that he balances perfectly. Same goes for Foy in the strongest movie performance she’s given to date. Much more than the worrying wife, Foy’s take on Mrs. Armstrong is one of compassion and strength for her husband. It doesn’t hurt that Foy has charisma of her own to carry every scene she is in. Nearly all of the supporting cast leaves their own impressions in given scenes, Clarke and Fugit in particular as the stars-and-stripes ace pilots using their smiles as shields against the unknown of the mission. Even Corey Stoll’s cocky one-liners as Buzz Aldrin are endearing for the atmosphere of the movie.
First Man is a Herculean effort for someone as young and fresh as Chazelle that he mostly pulls off. There’s no question Chazelle is good at what he does, but he might be too good at fulfilling his vision in this case as First Man feels much more like an uncaged yet unnecessary virtual reality ride. It makes sense that Universal has been pushing for audiences to see this on an IMAX screen considering the movie feels as grandiose and overblown as a stadium rock concert. There is a deep, heartfelt story of a man making a personal achievement on top of a historical achievement in this movie, but the vehicle carrying it flew too close to the sun. It’s at least nice to know there are still new filmmakers in mainstream Hollywood who try this hard, now comes the part where they come back down to Earth.