First Man is an all-American bonafide classic; a master class in how to make a great movie. Damien Chazelle has been trying to prove himself an auteur since he arrived on the scene eight years ago, and if there were any doubt left that he deserves the mantle, he demolishes it here. It’s the kind of film that you leave wanting to tell people about, the kind that can appeal to cinephiles and laymen, jocks and nerds alike. For Chazelle doesn’t want to rest on the laurels of history; he wants to bring it to life, to make us understand it in ways we didn’t before, and to utilize every filmmaking technique in the book to do so. It’s a lofty ambition, and yet one he masters with a wisdom beyond his years.
In 1962, after being grounded in the aftermath of a test flight gone wrong, as well as the death of his daughter Karen, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) applies to become a pilot with the newly formed NASA, specifically working with the Gemini and Apollo missions. He’s the perfect candidate for the group – he’s stoic, he’s determined, he’s a fast learner, and he’s an extraordinary pilot. He will need all of these traits as he tries to balance his home life alongside wife Janet (Claire Foy) with the fact that his line of work kills several of his best friends on a daily basis. However, no matter the setbacks, Armstrong works tirelessly to accomplish what no human has ever dreamed possible: to leave this world behind and to walk upon the face of the moon.
What separates First Man from the trillions of space movies to come before, even The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, is the fact that Damien Chazelle wants us to fully understand just how insane it was to attempt to go to the moon. Sure, he lightens things up by explaining exactly how the landing was achieved with a cheesy how-to video from the 1960s, but the rest of the film’s runtime is dedicated to showing how deadly the entire escapade turned out to be. Two of the three major launch sequences are disasters, and Chazelle uses the opportunity to demonstrate to the audience how masterful he is at portraying tension. The opening scene, where Armstrong’s X-15 loses control and begins bouncing along the atmosphere, is one of the most thrilling, breathtaking sequences of filmmaking produced in modern memory, and that’s how the film starts. And it doesn’t let up from there, making sure the audience understands the difficulty of the ordeal by putting the camera right in the middle of each training exercise and launch sequence. Chazelle creates an atmosphere of claustrophobia and terror only heightened by each creak and rattle of the rockets, reminding the audience that for all of the money thrown at the NASA program, for all of the speeches and reassurances, this great scientific endeavor amounted to strapping a man inside a barely-tested concoction of taped-together metal and rocket fuel with the hopes that he wouldn’t blow up. It creates an effect unlike anything audiences have seen before – not in Apollo 13, not in Gravity, not anywhere. Perhaps this fear of death and failure is why the NASA program can be broken down into two essential types: the “eggheads” like Neil and Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), and the more jockish fighter pilots, like Ed White (Jason Clarke) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll). These are the only two models that could handle the stress and the lingering presence of death that pervades the missions. Furthermore, in understanding how insanely difficult and dangerous this entire ordeal is, the film allows us to empathize with those who doubt the program, whose complaints come as frustrating to Neil, but understandable to audiences – history reminds us that Congress was against the program due to its expensive price tag, while many citizens were against it because the money could feasibly be more useful on Earth. However, while the film provides understanding to the arguments of those on the outside looking in, make no mistake: it understands exactly how important this victory was not just for Armstrong, and not just for America (although the film doesn’t shy away from the patriotic nature of said victory), but for the world itself. And while it becomes frustrating to both the characters in the film and the audience to see failure after failure for most of the film’s runtime, the decision ultimately pays off in a major way when the ultimate success is portrayed in the potent finale.
However, perhaps even more important than the sense of tension and suspense imposed by the film is the incredibly humanist story at its core. While it’s all well and good to demonstrate the physical toll the voyage to the moon took upon astronauts, their families, and the world at large, the greater effects were inflicted upon the mental and emotional well-being – the psychological requirements necessary to face death every day, the nature of loss on those who had to risk everything, and the cathartic release that success brought to the world, a brief respite from the terrors of Vietnam, the arms race, and a rising divide amongst people in order to say, “We, as a people, are capable of accomplishing great things, despite our destructive tendencies.” Chazelle explores these emotions with such blunt honesty, it would almost seem to the naked eye to be quite cold. While never outright stating it, he explores the types of humans capable of facing death every day – the men with nothing to lose. The reason that Armstrong is so adept at handling risk and certain doom on a daily basis is that he’s already lost something dear in his daughter Karen, and it is that grief that he channels into his mission – an emotion that Gosling demonstrates with great restraint. Of course, while it is easy to look at the men almost stupidly risking their lives and think, “Wow, that’s so brave,” the film also spends a significant amount of time on the home front, showing the wives who actually suffer the consequences of their husbands’ failures. Perhaps the smartest thing writer Josh Singer does in the film is introduce the families of astronauts even before the astronauts themselves, so if and when something goes wrong, it’s not just Random Face #3 who is perishing in the fire, it is a husband and father of three. The sequences of Janet trying to coral her two songs while Neil is away show both the affects of the race on the household, while also offering a frightening future for Janet should Neil be the next astronaut to perish. And lest you forget just how likely it was that Apollo 11 would eventually fail, the preparations for the launch are eerily juxtaposed with a prepared contingency statement regarding the deaths of Neil, Buzz, and Michael Collins, emotionally grounding us so the already-successful mission can still fill us with miraculous joy. This is a film that understands the impact of grief, of how it can be both a weight and a driving force, and it channels that emotion to create a touching, rich story that not only dazzles you, but moves you as well.
Of course, what really sells this movie, viscerally and emotionally, is the masterful control over Chazelle demonstrates over every aspect of the filmmaking process. It’s as if the young writer/director wanted to prove what we already knew to be true: that he is an auteur, an artist in every sense of the word, who possesses a keen eye for every detail on the set – even the costume design here is impeccable. This is a textbook example of classical filmmaking, like Frank Capra directing a Steven Spielberg film, or vice versa. The special effects are faultlessly rendered, particularly once the moon is finally reached. The sound design is stellar, amplifying the silence for each creak and rattle, as well as the boom of each error, lurch, and launch. And then there’s the lush, gorgeous cinematography, which seems designed to prove, once and for all, that 35mm film stock always looks best. The lighting design is phenomenal, be it the darkness of a cramped space pod or the blue, moonlit streets of Houston. Perhaps most brilliantly of all is Chazelle’s decision to utilize first person POV at several points throughout the film, putting audiences right in the middle of training exercises, launches, and disasters. And while the POV camerawork is perfect for capturing that intensity in Armstrong’s training, it culminates in the greater emotional payoff of placing the viewer right in the middle of those first steps on the moon. Are there perhaps too many shots of people looking up at the moon? Perhaps, but when things look this gorgeous, there’s a lot you’re willing to overlook. And I couldn’t forget Justin Hurwitz’s score, which draws on classical traditions to create a memorable, Williams-esque composition – it’s even got a theme tune! How many modern day films have a theme tune? The score ingeniously remains subtle and understated for most of the film’s run, right up until the finale, where it kicks into gear for an impactful emotional payoff, and it absolutely works. Really, from the top down, this is some of the best filmmaking you will see all year.
Perhaps what is most surprising of all, considering the technical nature of this project, is the acting. Everyone, from the stars to the extras, is pulling their weight, and then some. Gosling in particular is a standout as the titular First Man on the Moon. Gosling plays Armstrong as a man of quiet thoughtfulness. Unlike similar films of this model, he isn’t a cold, unfeeling example of 60s stoic masculinity – he’s warm with his kids, he can let loose with his wife, and he’s capable of cracking jokes when needed. However, it’s clear he has his own way of expressing both himself and his emotions. He’s short and curt, but in a way that works. He’s dorky, but in a lovable way. And even when he’s smiling and trying to have a good time, we can see pain in his eyes reflective of every friend and family member he lost along the way. It’s not a showy performance, but it is a masterful one. Meanwhile, one of the film’s few missteps is Foy’s slightly underutilized – most of the first hour of the film is just her looking scared or sad, which isn’t much for characterization. However, as the film builds to its emotional conclusion, it starts to put even her smaller moments in a greater context, and her sparse appearances early make her larger moments pop that much more, and in spectacular fashion. Plus, she has great chemistry with Gosling, which helps ground the film emotionally. As for the rest of the roles, each actor has a way of shining onscreen. It becomes fairly clear from the minute Corey Stoll shows up as Buzz Aldrin why the real Aldrin has been critical of the movie – Stoll does not shy away from Aldrin’s reported tactlessness. It’s not a negative performance, per se; Aldrin’s bluntness, while allegedly irksome to Armstrong, was what made him an effective astronaut. However, listening to him repeatedly add, “I’m just sayin’!” onto every cruel, poorly timed comment he makes is both hilarious and anger-inducing, in all the right ways. Other performances that stood out include Jason Clarke as Armstrong’s best friend Ed White, Kyle Chandler playing a Real Kyle Chandler Type, Christopher Abbott and Patrick Fugit as two astronauts Armstrong flew with, Shea Whigham as famed astronaut Gus Grissom, Olivia Hamilton as Ed’s wife Patricia (crucial to one key scene), and especially Pablo Schreiber, who appears for approximately two minutes as Jim Lovell (famously played by Tom Hanks in Apollo 13) and who finally gets to play a good person for once. First Man should be the template going forward for filling out an ensemble cast.
First Man is history come to life; made visceral through its technical and emotional accomplishments. It tells a story that everyone knows in a way no one has done before, all while making literal the parts we don’t think about. It portrays the moon landing in all its genius, flaws, importance, and lunacy. It examines the physical, mental, and emotional toll it took on those involved in making the trip, as well as the significance of perhaps the only truly worthwhile accomplishment humankind has made. Near the very end of the film, Chazelle uses the famous Kennedy speech where the mission was first announced, where he declared, “We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” For many Americans, even in 1969, these are just words. First Man, for the first time, analyzes these words, puts them in context, and brings them to life. It is movie magic, pure and simple, and I implore you to go see what amounts to a modern American classic.