**** (out of 4)
Whether it’s Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln) or Winston Churchill (Darkest Hour), well-known historical figures have always been susceptible to idolatrous movie treatments. But that’s especially true in the case of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), the subject of Damien Chazelle’s First Man. By now, after all, Apollo 11 has become an indelible part of our national mythology. Armstrong’s “small step for man” one-liner is virtually synonymous with American triumph, and in traditional tellings of American history, his moonwalk always stands out as a rare unifying moment in the otherwise turbulent landscape of the late 1960s.
Thankfully, First Man calls out this conventional understanding of Apollo 11 for what it really is: historical amnesia. Far from being a universally appreciated sign of American greatness, the space program was hugely controversial in its time. As Chazelle shows us, conservatives derided it as a financial boondoggle, complaining to Armstrong’s face about how “long” it was taking to get to the Moon. Meanwhile, liberals protested that the Apollo missions diverted funds from anti-poverty programs, a grievance that the film pointedly illustrates via a rendition of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon.”
From here, it’s also tempting to think that Armstrong must’ve been uniquely qualified to command Apollo 11. But although First Man depicts Armstrong as being both unusually tenacious and scientifically astute, it also suggests that he was in many ways just lucky. Since space exploration was still a nascent industry in the 60s, the Apollo program proved quite prone to fatal mishaps. As we learn in the film, in fact, several of Armstrong’s colleagues – including his next-door neighbor – died in freak accidents before they even had a chance to be considered for Apollo 11. In the lead-up to the mission, moreover, Armstrong himself almost died at several points, and these near-death experiences provide the basis for some of the film’s most harrowing sequences.
In addition to reminding us of Apollo 11’s charged historical context, First Man also questions whether the mission was truly a success for Armstrong himself. By dint of being the first person on the Moon, he certainly cemented his place in history. But in Chazelle’s telling, Armstrong’s achievements came at great personal cost, alienating him from his two children and his loyal-but-frustrated wife Janet (Claire Foy). As though to better represent this idea, the closing scene depicts the visit Janet pays her husband while he’s in post-mission quarantine, and in a telling shot, he’s depicted standing alone in the middle of an empty, glass-enclosed room. The moment aptly illustrates the extent of Armstrong’s emotional solitude – and in doing so, it poignantly speaks to the price he paid in his personal life for his enormous professional ambitions.
All in all, then, First Man digs through the mythology surrounding Armstrong to portray him as the ordinary, flawed human he actually was. As discussed above, the film’s success in this regard has much to do with Chazelle’s contrarian approach to storytelling. But it also stems from the way Chazelle harnesses film form. For instance, his use of handheld, 16mm footage gives the film the true-to-life feel of a documentary. Additionally, the film’s long takes, dark interiors, and eschewal of background music all capture the isolating effect of Armstrong’s ambitions. And during the sequences that depict the space mission itself, the rapid editing and claustrophobic close-ups viscerally illustrate the physical challenges that space exploration entailed.
Ultimately, the biggest reason why First Man works is Gosling. By all accounts, the real Neil Armstrong was a withdrawn man who rarely experienced major emotional outbursts. Gosling faithfully represents that reality, creating a character whose stoic façade belies his stubborn determination and distrust of authority. More importantly, however, his portrayal of Armstrong also avoids excessive psychological analysis. Instead of straining to uncover the deep motivations behind Armstrong’s oft-enigmatic behavior, Gosling chooses to leave them ambiguous, making us feel the same bewilderment that Armstrong’s intimates felt when dealing with Armstrong in real life. Gosling’s refusal to emote may cost him come awards season. But his is the kind of understated performance that First Man needs – and in the end, it’s one that all thoughtful moviegoers will easily appreciate.
First Man (2018)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll
Running Time: 141 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Produced by: Damien Chazelle, Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen, Isaac Klausner
Written by: Josh Singer. Based on James R. Hansen’s 2005 biography of the same name.
Directed by: Damien Chazelle