First Man: Another Day of Moon, by David Bax
It continues to be fascinating to watch Ryan Gosling become a better and better actor. In his early films like Murder by Numbers and The United States of Leland, he seemed to define emoting as furrowing his brow and knowing he was cute. In the decade and a half since then, his self-consciousness has turned into self-confidence. In last year’s Blade Runner: 2049 and now, in Damien Chazelle’s First Man, where he portrays Neil Armstrong, he capably and sympathetically embodies taciturn men in performances that are no less physical for their stillness. He’s acting with his whole body, not just his face, in roles with minimal dialogue (probably for the best in this case, since his approximation of Armstrong’s Ohio accent makes him sound like Joe Namath). His assured presence is one of the primary reasons First Man is such a stirring success.
Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer (adapting James R. Hansen’s book), track Armstrong’s professional and, to some extent, personal life over the course of the 1960s, covering his recruitment into NASA’s Gemini program and the long series of triumphs and tragedies that culminated in his successful mission to the moon and back. With him through it all is Janet, the stock supportive-but-concerned wife character (though Claire Foy does bring some strength and distinction to the role), as well as an impressive line-up of white, male character actors as his coworkers and friends, including Ethan Embry, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Shea Whigham, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Ciarán Hinds, Pablo Schrieber, Christopher Abbott and, as Armstrong’s fellow moonwalker, Buzz Aldrin, Corey Stoll.
Chazelle’s respect for the men these actors are portraying is palpable. In the tradition of The Right Stuff, the movie’s default depiction of America’s first forays into outer space is a lofty one or, occasionally, a laughably self-serious one, like when Chandler’s character writes the word “MOON” on a chalkboard and then underlines it for good measure. First Man does make some room for criticisms, such as the entire space program being a juvenile pissing contest with the Soviets (Janet describes NASA as a bunch of boys building models out of balsa wood) or an immoral appropriation of funds, given how much unaddressed poverty and suffering there is down on the terra (Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” makes an appearance, evoking our nation’s present-day refusal to allocate money to help the largely non-white American citizens of Flint or Puerto Rico). But this amounts to little more than lip service in the face of Chazelle’s flag waving.
Anyway, it’s not the philosophy or ethics of space travel that drives First Man; it’s the depiction of the act itself. Even before Armstrong joins NASA, Chazelle establishes a POV-heavy approach to depicting his missions. The movie’s prologue, an aircraft test that almost goes devastatingly awry, is almost a Star Tours-style theme park dark ride; at one point, I instinctively leaned back in my seat as if I could pull the plane out of its dive by myself. Chazelle brings in other modes as well, like the intentional 2001-referencing sequence in which one spacecraft docks with another set to classical music or his scenes of Armstrong’s family enjoying their suburban idyll, which can’t help but recall The Tree of Life with the way the camera flits behind or alongside the characters while they run and play (not to mention the fact that it takes place in Houston). The film has painterly strokes of its own design too, like when a rocket launches in the distance across a stretch of water and the resulting burst and reflection turns it momentarily into a speedily rising sun. Still, Chazelle returns again and again to his first person perspective. Even when he’s not using literal point-of-view shots, he still favors close-ups and elevates the sounds of ragged or labored breathing. Before First Man is a narrative film, it is an essentially experiential one.
It’s also recognizably a piece of Chazelle’s auteurist oeuvre. He is preoccupied with stories of people (like Mia and Sebastian in La La Land or Andrew in Whiplash) attempting and sometimes failing to strike a balance between their ambitions and their relationships with others. Janet (and thus First Man itself) refuses to let Armstrong off the hook for his bare minimum parenting and his conspicuous eagerness to return to work whenever he’s at home. In one bitterly funny sequence, at her prodding, he has a heart to heart with his sons but conducts it like a press conference.
Armstrong may, then, be another one of Chazelle’s driven yet flawed protagonists. But there’s another layer to his external coldness. If you’ve, say, read or seen The Right Stuff, you know that not all of the astronauts survived to the end of the Gemini program. You may even know that the Armstrongs lost their daughter at a very young age. Armstrong’s struggles to process the losses he’s experienced run through First Man from the very beginning but it’s only as the movie heads toward the end that it becomes apparent that, while this is a movie about America, space, exploration, discovery, perseverance and much, much more, it’s most beautifully, crushingly, cathartically a movie about grief.