First Man (2018)
Written by Josh Singer
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Neil Armstrong was not averse to challenges. Working as a test pilot in the 1950s and early 60s instilled a seeming never-ending coolness over him. Even as his toddler daughter is dying from a brain tumor, he holds in everything, including from his wife. He only allows the emotions to break through in private. In the wake of his youngest passing, Neil applies to Project Gemini, wanting to put his mind and energies into what seems to be an impossible task, getting humans to the moon. Over the course of almost a decade, Armstrong and his fellow astronauts work through challenges and tragedies to achieve their goal. Finally, Neil and two others are chosen to be the ones to be the voyagers into the unknown.
The more I have thought about First Man, the more I fall more in love with it. I suspect Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy will be ignored for major awards because nothing about these performances are “showy.” However, they reflect the reality of the emotional landscape for some people during the 1950s and 60s. Neil Armstrong is so perfectly Midwestern, and the film doesn’t make judgments about the way he reacts when confronted with sudden tragedy. He chooses to deal with it in a way that is comfortable for him. When fellow Gemini member Ed White tries to talk with him after Armstrong has left the wake for the deceased Elliott See, Armstrong tells White that he didn’t leave so he could speak with someone. White eventually capitulates, and director Chazelle makes sure not to frame Armstrong in a negative light dramatically. He wants to process his friend’s death how he chooses.
For those critics that have said Gosling’s stoicism cause them to feel disengaged from the emotional threads, they expect a movie like this to possess. I can understand that point of view, but I would argue that Chazelle has chosen to represent the emotional behaviors of the period in a more accurate way than instead use the expected language of modern filmmaking. I think about films like The Theory of Everything or pick your own Oscar bait where characters deliver over dramatic soliloquies backed by music meant to telegraph the audience’s feelings. That isn’t here, and it surprised and delighted me that Chazelle would choose to go so restrained.
My favorite part of First Man is how it takes the space program, such a textbook topic, and makes it feel textured and real. There’s such attention to process and the slow, steady stages of each mission. The astronauts spend much of their time logging data and charting courses. The understanding of mathematics each of these men had to possess is one of the most overlooked elements of our space race. In addition, the coolheaded nature they were able to achieve even in the direst of circumstances was admirable. You realize why it is we didn’t have a more significant number of astronauts who died in the process of getting to the moon. They essentially gained doctorates in physics and engineering on top of the physical preparation.
The most striking thing I walked away feeling was that Chazelle was able to make the moon feeling like an actual, tangible location. We’ve all seen the classic grainy black and white footage, and we’ve seen recreations in one form or another in our time. However, the moment they are bringing the lander in and when Armstrong makes that famous first step and begins walking across the moon’s surface, I had a sense of place I have never experienced in other forms of media about this same topic. You may not have a deep emotional connection with Neil Armstrong, but I can’t imagine you would lack a sense of achievement while watching this incredible journey take place. Of the three Chazelle films I’ve seen, First Man is in third place, but that is just because the other two (Whiplash, La La Land) are so remarkably good. First Man will undoubtedly leave you with a sense of our distance from the other parts of the universe and often the distance between each other.
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