The third act of a Damien Chazelle movie is always a pleasure to behold. Be it the agony and ecstasy of creation (a la Whiplash) or a technicolor daydream of the road not taken (La La Land), the young director has already established a pattern of using his climax to reveal the horror of achieving your dream, and that is no more literal than in the final triumphant moments of First Man, Chazelle’s biopic about Neil Armstrong that reminds moviegoers what the moon landing was: a journey into the unknown. And it’s an unknown the film both yearns for and dreads its entire running time.
As Ryan Gosling’s Armstrong views the surface of that orbiting rock—one that’s ever been on his distant horizon yet is now just outside the window of Apollo 11’s module—he is no mere astronaut on a mission; this is an Ahab who’s at last eye-to-eye with the whale, one so enormous in scope and import that it is only now that Chazelle switches formats from 35mm to 70mm IMAX. The effect is of such magnitude, especially when juxtaposed by the chilled silence of space, that it really is akin to walking on the moon since it takes one’s breath away.
This is the ending that all moviegoers will know is First Man’s destination, however it is the trip getting there that makes the picture Chazelle’s biggest and perhaps most remote effort to date. A traditional biopic about a man who would hate to have a Hollywood movie centered on his life, the film can be at times as reserved as the U.S. Navy pilot turned historical figure. Hence it’s always keeping viewers at arm’s length, much like how Gosling’s Armstrong is only partially present in his domestic life, despite it being what haunts him to the furthest reaches of space travel. Certainly more challenging for a mainstream audience than La La Land, First Man is still nonetheless crafted upon a widely popular storytelling canvas, making these sometimes darker shadings all the more alluring.
Set during the height of the space race between the United States and Russia, First Man tracks Armstrong from a near fatal crash on the outskirts of Edwards Air Force Base to his trip to the moon and back again. However, the film removes the certainty that generations of Americans grew up in about the moon landing and the space race in general. At least ever since Tom Wolfe’s magnificent The Right Stuff (and the sterling Philip Kaufman adaptation that came afterward), the United States’ journey toward the stars has been treated as a grand adventure. Wolfe definitely removed some of the romanticism placed on the first five Americans to leave our atmosphere, but his account and the movies that followed still treated these men as cocksure aces reaching toward the Heavens.
Nothing seems remotely sure in First Man. Adapted from James R. Hansen’s biography on Armstrong by screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight), First Man wallows in the ambiguity of an era where the Soviets were constantly setting records first, and on more than one occasion it was Armstrong’s severely cool countenance that prevented him from being incinerated into dust (though as the film details, other astronauts were not so lucky). The pressure of trying to reach the moon first, and the risks they’re willing to take to get there, is suddenly brought into a new clarity that is more than about solving an equation. Neil’s wife, Janet (Claire Foy), is not wholly wrong when she suggests they can, at times, resemble boys making it up as they go along.
That emphasis on placing viewers in a pressure cooker causes the film to often resemble a thriller, complete with Chazelle revisiting the shakier handheld approach of Whiplash. When this intimate style is pointed toward the strain on Neil’s home life, particularly after the death of his daughter, the picture is dipped in an air of melancholy. This sensation is evermore pronounced as Foy is required to carry much of the emotional weight as the lone half of the marriage willing to confront their anxieties—even as the film acutely leaves the palpable discomfort of being a woman in 1960s America unspoken.
The role of Armstrong seems tailor-made to Gosling’s strengths as an actor. Often associated with his preference for minimalism, the stoic Armstrong offers a protagonist who will never articulate what’s on his mind, even if it’s just barely creeping into his eyes. At a glance, he is the ace pilot, but within, he is the man who desperately wants the moon mission he can never overtly demand.
These moments of constant repression are contrasted by the vastness of his and NASA’s endeavors. Owing much to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, the picture conjures its missions among the stars as sometimes orchestral escapes for Armstrong, but often white-knuckled shots of adrenaline. It is intriguing to consider that between this and Interstellar if an emphasis on in-camera models (as opposed to computer generated effects) might be considered the mark of “serious” films about space exploration going forward. Either way, the utilization of classical special effects techniques gives the space sequences a tactile quality that is only heightened by Justin Hurwitz’s score, a work that bounces between the hushed and the celestial as Apollo 11 rockets toward the dawning blue above Cape Canaveral.
There has been a manufactured outrage in the press about the supposed lack of an American flag in First Man’s lunar landing sequence. Atop of being political hackery, this is also dishonest as the flag is present. However, the picture does curiously not include its placement into the soil. But this seems devoid of any political connation; rather it stems from an introspective one. Despite having all the trappings of a Hollywood epic about that great leap for mankind, the movie, like Gosling’s version of Neil Armstrong, refuses to get out of its own head. Only when it is at its grandest in IMAX scope, casting shadows across a lunar surface, does it become its most pensive about what oceans hide beneath Neil’s own surface.
The result is a film that at times can be a little too happy in its own company, and one that is less passionately engrossing than Whiplash or La La Land. Yet it most definitely will engross, carrying you well beyond that first step. First Man savors those dark outlines cast across lunar rock, which, like the moon itself, enthralls the longer you stare.
First Man premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 9 and opens in theaters on Oct. 12.