First Man (Damien Chazelle, 2018) 2½ out of 4 stars.
A slow, meditative look at America’s great space program of the 1960s, First Man is long on family drama and short on action, but this is not always a bad thing, except when it is. One drawback is that we have seen not dissimilar versions of some of these same events before, albeit from slightly different perspectives – think The Right Stuff, Apollo 13 and documentaries like The Last Man on the Moon, among others – and the film offers little in the way of novel insight, other than its selection of a heretofore less-examined central protagonist like Neil Armstrong. That aside, First Man mostly holds our interest, though I deeply regret that it could not find more to do for its female characters than have them pine for their men while they travel the cosmos. Sure, one could perhaps argue that the 1960s offered fewer opportunities for women than today’s world, but a filmmaker in 2018 should be able to write more for them then what we get here.
Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner 2049) plays Armstrong as a hermetically sealed man, emotions tightly tucked away, by far the movie’s best metaphor for the life of an astronaut: let nothing inside your armored suit, lest you die. Claire Foy (the young Queen Elizabeth on Netflix’s The Crown) plays Janet, his long-suffering wife (even that phrase gives me pause, as it is far too cinematically common), and she brings as much vibrancy as she can to her underwritten role. Together, they journey from posting to posting as Neil works his way, post-Navy, through various NASA jobs. We meet him, in medias res, on one such gig as he climbs through the upper layer of the planet’s stratosphere in a test craft, suddenly losing control as the plane shuts down. This will not be the first time that Armstrong fights for his life in an earthbound plunge, but sure enough, he regains control and survives. Of course, we knew that would have to happen, since it’s only 1961 and we’re far from the 1969 moon landing. But the sequence is still assembled with thrilling mise-en-scène, so we are very much there for every second of the ride.
After that, and for the next 130 minutes or so, we follow Armstrong and his fellow astronauts through the rise of the Gemini and Apollo programs, all the way up to Apollo 11, which Armstrong commanded on the way to his fabled first steps on our lone satellite (he also commanded Gemini 8). As he undergoes tests at work, he alternately engages and detaches from family life at home. Neil and Janet are parents to two boys, with the memory of a previous daughter, who died in infancy (and whom we see in early scenes), weighing heavily on Neil. He is friendly enough with his work colleagues, but never too close; you can’t let people in, either. Gosling spends a lot of time staring metaphysically away from conversations, troubled by occasional internal demons. We know he’s extremely capable, but mostly just see him lost in existential thoughts.
Director Chazelle (Whiplash), no doubt aware of previous films about NASA, often chooses to shoot the big set pieces in tight close-ups of his actors, framed inside their helmets. He mimics this approach with those on the ground, rendering the human visage, with its many pores and freckles, as a paler version of star-filled space. It’s interesting, at first, but loses its appeal over time. As mired in its own repressed longing as the film can be, however, the actual moon landing is spectacular (manufactured outrage over the lack of flag planting notwithstanding). It’s what we’ve been waiting for (for two hours), and Chazelle delivers, reminding us of the global reach of the event, and of how much has been lost since then with the loss of such a unifying, inspiring vision for humanity. For a brief moment, those were the days …