Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Christopher Abbott, Lukas Haas
In a claustrophobic opening sequence, we ride in the cockpit with the heavy-breathing pilot. The physicality of Dunkirk marries the scale of Interstellar. He is testing a shuttle in the early '60s. It loses orbit and almost pings off the earth's atmosphere into the dark beyond. He comes close to dying. Seconds later, a PET scanner peers intimidatingly at his sick daughter. He watches quietly; she is dying. Minutes later, we see him at his daughter's funeral. He finds an empty room, and weeps. He weeps so hard that he has no tears left. He suspects there are more deaths, more funerals ahead, and he is right. We don't see him cry again. Not in the years of astronaut accidents and technical setbacks. Machines fail the man…until he becomes one.
Director Damien Chazelle explores space in his film about Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon. He explores personal space, professional space, political space and headspace. He explores the decrepit space separating closure from obsession, and the silent space connecting tragedy and triumph. Perspective, as Armstrong admits in his NASA interview, makes all the difference. It depends on where you – we – look from: the man, or the moon. First Man is a poignant, thrilling and hugely affecting exercise in fusing these two perspectives into one.
Unlike in his previous films (Whiplash, La La Land, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), where the craft of music drove the narrative, Chazelle here uses the art of music as his narrative language
A space mission is the backdrop against which a father and his wife grieve; in their little world Justin Hurwitz's soundtrack is gentle and melancholic, as if it were being strung by an angel on a harp – the kind of score that identifies phases of life destined to become personal footage and flashback memories. A grieving American family is the backdrop against which small steps of men turn into a giant step for mankind; when the world looks little from up there, Hurwitz's intimate theme becomes operatic and soaring with strings and multiple instruments – the kind of score that identifies phases of history destined to become public footage and recorded memories.
Unlike in his previous films (Whiplash, La La Land, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), where the craft of music drove the narrative, Chazelle here uses the art of music as his narrative language. Even when there is none, it is an interlude. As real as the visuals look, the sounds elevate certain inanimate moments into the realms of performative cinema. For instance, a powerful image – that of a rocket launch – is revealed in sync with the dramatic crescendo of a theme, as if the curtains were opening an extravagant stage. As if a magician were concluding a set. At one point during the Gemini 8 mission, the successful docking of two spacecrafts into one another almost plays out like Sebastian and Mia's Griffith Observatory dance in La La Land. It looks impossibly romantic, as if these chunks of flying machines were about to drift into the sunset happily ever after. Chazelle's treatment, his departures into eye-catching riffs of choreography, is strange and beautiful, because it is at odds with the helmet-cam grittiness of the characters' insides. It lends the film precisely the kind of feral wonder children tend to associate with the term "astronaut" when they list down their dream vocations in school.
The landing is the main chapter of Armstrong's life, and not one in the history books. The privacy of his first step is palpable. The smallness of his thoughts is credible
There's much to appreciate about the way Chazelle and his core team magnify the journey of a man who finds solace in telescopic emotions. They paint Armstrong as a haunted father who refuses to be grounded. In that context, there is perhaps nothing better than Ryan Gosling's poker-faced intensity. His brooding Manchester-By-The-Sea-ish act humanizes the legacy of Armstrong to such an extent that it becomes easy to believe that his endurance is merely a form of self-flagellation; the rickety flights up are his penance, and the glorious adventure a byproduct of his healing. At no point does he seem like a genius, even when he continues to drive the Apollo program, because his brilliance is made to look like a reaction – a personal escape that, in contrast to type, is silently supported rather than resented by his wife Janet. The fantastic Claire Foy somehow crystallizes this complex feeling.
On one hand, she is worried for the father of her two sons. But on the other, despite being the partner of a high-risk specialist, she is more worried about him failing than dying. More than love or tenderness, there's a determination, a deep focus, about their marital chemistry. He isn't the only one on a mission. The weight of their past is heavy. In a way she, too, is speeding towards a bumpy exit from the planet's atmosphere – into a tranquil space where there's zero gravity. You sense she needs him to reach there – for them, not for America, not for NASA, not to beat the Russians at the space game. The perspective belongs to the man on the moon, not man on the moon. Which is possibly why the flag is missing from the pivotal moment. As are any visual cutaways to Earth. The landing is the main chapter of Armstrong's life, and not one in the history books. The privacy of his first step is palpable. The smallness of his thoughts is credible. After all, he only loved his little girl to the moon and back.