‘First Man’ Review: Neil Armstrong Biopic Brings a Hero Back to Earth
‘La La Land’ duo Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling don’t give us a flag-waving hero but a human being — and that makes all the difference
Why doesn’t this movie show astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) planting the American flag on the moon? That was the question nagging away at folks in Venice after the premiere of First Man, Damien Chazelle’s bluntly visceral and deeply empathetic look at the Apollo 11 mission that culminated on July 21, 1969, when Armstrong became the first man ever to walk on the lunar surface. The answer comes down to the filmmaker’s approach to the material, which favors men over machinery and the personal over the political. The Stars and Stripes certainly get their moment in the sun in the movie’s thrilling final moments, sure. But it’s not America First boosterism that motivates Chazelle, as much as what the moon landing meant to Armstrong and a global audience that responded emotionally to the hope inherent in the concept of aspiring to the heavens.
So forget the bogus flag controversy, that in context is no controversy at all — better, instead, to concentrate on the abundant factors that make First Man unmissable and unforgettable. There have been astronaut movies before, good (Apollo 13) and better (The Right Stuff). But few have been as much a triumph of the imagination fueled, not by FX but by indelible feeling, as this one.
For Armstrong himself, and by extension his family, the seven-year lead up to the moonwalk was filled with loss, sacrifice and failure — three things we don’t think about when we see the traditional image of Armstrong as nothing but a heroic icon. First Man, bracingly adapted by Spotlight Oscar winner Josh Singer from the excellent 2005 book by James R. Hansen, makes something fresh, fallible and flesh-and-blood of its real-life cosmic pioneer. He was doing a job, sure, but it was a job that could kill him. He knew it; his family knew it, his fellow astronauts knew it. But America blinked, dazzled by the bells and whistles.
Chazelle takes the perceived glamor of space exploration and shoves it into a tin can. Literally. That’s what the training simulator looks like that will catapult the Gemini astronauts into space. And things are not any less claustrophobic and scary when they climbs into the real thing. You feel woozy and on puke alert just watching it. Imagine what it felt for Armstrong and fellow Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Michael Collins (Lucas Haas). There was no precedent for the dangers they were facing — only the still vivid memory of astronauts Ed White (Jason Clarke), Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham) and Roger B. Chaffee (Corey Michael Smith) blowing up in the cockpit during preflight testing for first-manned Apollo mission.
Back in the comforts of home, Armstrong is also no stranger to tragedy. He and wife, Janet (Claire Foy), had recently lost their young daughter Karen to cancer. And now their two growing sons, Mark and Rick, must face the possibility that their dad could die in space. Ever the good NASA soldier, Neil is ready for whatever happens. But dealing with the emotional toll on himself and his family is beyond him. Gosling digs deep to capture the courage and grieving heart of a reserved man who can’t always articulate his emotions. His implosive performance grounds the film in truth and a touching reality. It’s Jan who finally forces his response as a husband and father — and Foy is magnificent in the role, bluntly tells her husband to talk to his sons about the perils of his mission. “I’m done,” she says, emphatically, unwilling to take on the burden alone. (The real-life Janet died earlier this year; the performance doubles as a lovely posthumous tribute.) These home scenes in Houston leave an indelible impact about just what’s at stake without drifting into manipulative tearjerking. Jan, who is always available to comfort other astronaut wives, is harder on the men who wear a mask of bravado “You’re a bunch of guys making models out of balsa wood,” she tells the engineers and execs calling the shots from the ground. ” You don’t have anything under control!.”
Chazelle and Gosling, eons away from the musical romance of La La Land, work beautifully to anchor this epic character study in reality, no matter how harsh. Living in a bubble is impossible when the media is always pushing for access, government leaders are calling the astronaut program a waste of money, and Gil Scott-Heron’s satirical “Whitey on the Moon” wonders how the space race can really affect life on Earth. The movie wonders, too, asking provocative questions at every turn, with answers that are not spelled out in the script. Meaning is better culled from the haunting images and sounds created by Chazelle’s team, including cinematographer Linus Sandgren, editor Tom Cross and composer Justin Hurwitz. For some, the film may feel too remote or cool to the touch. But the director entreats us to look closer.
And from the moment Armstrong takes his first step on the moon, Chazelle’s film exists on a plane of the purest mystery. It’s not the words the astronaut utters for posterity (“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”) or the enormity of the mission, or even the global cheering (Chazelle significantly does not include the roar of the crowd) that matters most. It might be a simple gesture the moonwalker makes in honor of his daughter, or the soundless blur of space, or our individual sense of what lies over the rainbow. This ode to Armstrong films First Man with a poet’s eye that cherishes the hush that comes when the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.