OP-ROB Rating: LEGEND
“First Man” is a 2018 biopic of astronaut Neil Armstrong, directed by Damien Chazelle. The film begins in 1961, as Neil (Ryan Gosling) pilots an X-15 plane out of the atmosphere, but then experiences mechanical failures in trying to get back in. The scene is shot with intense drama, and it is the first of many times in “First Man” that we are pushed to the edge of our seat as the film marches toward the seminal 1969 Apollo 11 mission that put Neil on the moon.
The main focus of “First Man” is Neil Armstrong, solemnly portrayed by Ryan Gosling. However, there are some interesting dynamics going on throughout the film that make it more than solely an in-depth character study. One that struck me in particular was the presence of opposition to the entire moon-landing operation from within the United States at the time. Throughout the film Neil and other members of the NASA crew have to convince the public, Congress, and sometimes themselves that the mission is worth the cost. In several scenes we see protesters, skeptical college students, and disgruntled congressmen. As the Apollo 11 mission nears its launch, black jazz artist Gil Scott-Heron sings his “Whitey on the Moon” jingle at a rally across from the NASA base in Houston, listing off the struggles of his community with the sarcastic anecdote that none that matters because “whiteys on the moon”. In retrospect, I think the vast, vast majority of Americans celebrate the moon landing as a wholeheartedly worthy endeavor, thereby making the song seem silly. But director Damien Chazelle does a good job of making the audience truly consider the controversy at the time. The protesters had a valid point, though history would eventually prove them wrong.
This gray area surrounding the justification of going to the moon permeates into Neil’s personal life in moving ways. For example, his wife Janet (Claire Foy) has to strong-arm him into briefing their kids before embarking on the Apollo 11 mission the night before he leaves. In this conversation, Neil’s younger son asks, “So you won’t be at my swim-meet?” which, in a different context could be played off as a joke. However, the scene is anything but laughable. It brings into question to obligations of a man with a family. Is a great endeavor worth sacrificing family life? We get a harsher challenge to this question after Ed White (Jason Clarke) is burned alive in the cockpit during a “plugs-out” test for the Apollo 1 mission, and his wife is left in almost catatonic despair with several children in tow.
These more grievous themes certainly dictate much of the tone of “First Man”, however I don’t want to mischaracterize it as entirely woeful. At each step from 1961 to the actual landing in 1969, Chazelle documents the incredible bravery and technical genius that went into the moon-landing effort. There are dozens of scenes that display the grit of everyone involved, shot with a sense of admiration and patriotism. One of my favorites takes place near the beginning of Neil’s involvement with NASA, during a G-Force simulator test. Each astronaut is strapped into this mechanized gyro and spun until he passes out. Afterwards, the puke-stained astronauts are led into a classroom to study rocket-physics, with over 600 pages of reading to take home that night. Scenes like this help put into perspective what these astronauts were doing on a daily basis. As the lead up to Apollo 11 progresses, we are shown more and more seemingly impossible challenges that were met, time and time again.
Aside from the entirely straightforward chronological lead up to Apollo 11, “First Man” delves into its main character study with almost awkward intimacy. At the outset of the film, we see Neil lose his young daughter to a brain tumor and grow despondent and consumed with his work and see him struggle to connect with his two young boys, his wife Janet, and his colleagues at NASA. All these scenes add up to a portrait of a broken man, unable to overcome his own grief. Because Neil cannot face his own sorrow over the loss of his daughter, he consistently fails in his personal relationships. This leads him to divert all his attention to what he is good at: NASA operations. By the time Neil touches down on the moon, we expect to feel triumph, but the accomplishment rings somewhat hollow. Fulfilling the most daring mission in the history of mankind is not enough to free him from the crushing grief of losing a daughter.
One of the reasons people may be disappointed with “First Man” has to with expectations. I thought “First Man” was going to be a hype-drama about the Apollo 11 mission. Rather, it is a somber film about that “first man”, Neil Armstrong, who was not the rah-rah figure that I had expected him to be. These preconceptions could turn many away from the film. My own expectations were not met in the way that I thought they would be, and that forced me recalibrate my thoughts after leaving the theater. Chazelle has a way of doing that, especially with “La La Land”, a film I had to re-watch and re-review. It is a trait of a great filmmaker to make you think a little deeper about what his film is trying to express, outside of your own preconceptions. With “First Man”, Chazelle is showing us the emotional tolls that often plague those who chase great endeavors, and how they can mute equally important facets of life.