Cementing its director’s reputation as Hollywood’s most frustratingly talented and successful person under the age of 35, Damien Chazelle’s First Man is a terrific, taut film.
Telling the story we all suspected we knew about Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, it intelligently informs audiences’ perceptions of the climactic event of his life. Bent out of shape by the early loss of his daughter, Ryan Gosling’s Armstrong is a deadened, repressed willow of a man.
He is surrounded by more emotive, expressively normal characters, from his sidelined wife Janet (Claire Foy) to Corey Stroll’s boorish Buzz Aldrin and Kyle Chandler channelling Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton, control room authority for the climactic mission. These figures and others whirl around Armstrong, rewarding his patient and analytical eye for strategy, yet dismayed at the emotional repression it brings with it.
Gosling is on cracking form, folding within himself to become a man who knows his limitations are remote, and believes himself the right man for most jobs he can do. When the mask slips, his emotional vulnerability is clear to see – a repressive situation all too common in the 20th century.
Similarly unsurprising, but also frustrating, is Janet’s powerlessness to impact his decision-making, and her lack of agency. She is a housewife, not one of the sugary secret geniuses in Hidden Figures – her authority is limited to ensuring that she remains informed of the mission’s progress, and that Neil demonstrates the bare minimum of attachment to his boys before he leaves. Foy’s brittle, simmering energy is well-judged, but she’s not working with a huge amount.
As missions into orbit continue, the groundwork is laid for an eventual mission to the moon, with a backdrop of constant danger and bereavement that lingers like a foul smell. Astronauts die, friends are lost, and wives and families are left as evidence of the choice these men are making. Gosling shows Armstrong’s response in a devotion to work that ignores the dangers to his safety.
And then, space, a frantic landing, and the moon. For a majestic period of minutes, Chazelle takes us up to a rock in the sky, and the foundations he has laid pay off. We feel the relief of a life’s mission realised, the awe of a joker made serious by his surroundings, and a tantalising taste of the wonder that these men have experienced. This sequence’s brevity is a justifiable expression of the mission’s timeline, but feels like a robbery upon its conclusion – a brilliant manoeuvre.
Elsewhere, some of First Man‘s earthbound motifs are straight-faced to the point of silliness – Armstrong’s fascination with the moon extends to continually glancing up at it at significant junctures. But this film’s tone is sincere, and some obvious visual language is entirely permissible.
Neil Armstrong, we’re led to conclude, was a straight-laced man who happened to lead one of the most ambitious missions ever undertaken, and succeed. Chazelle and his team have made a film that complicates this picture without dulling the shine of its protagonist’s defining achievement, and should be lauded for its own success.