To establish the point early, Chazelle opens the story of NASA’s 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon with Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) taking a bone-rattling ride on a 140,000-foot test of an aircraft that’s meant to approach the edge of the atmosphere. Armstrong, who later will become the first man to set foot on the moon, encounters a malfunction but pushes through.
The sequence serves as a powerful overture for a movie about the early days of space flight. By today's standards, men were riding in vehicles that look fragile, almost jury-rigged. They were putting their lives on the line to break barriers and extend humanity’s reach — and not everyone thought space exploration was a great idea. A costly US space program was pitted against pressing domestic needs and a rising chorus of protest against the Vietnam War.
Chazelle evokes the tumultuous political atmosphere of the ‘60s, but doesn’t dwell on it nor does he sound triumphant chords about space achievement. He doesn't glorify the NASA astronauts who risked and sometimes lost their lives in pursuit of the moon landing President John F. Kennedy had chosen as a national goal.
Moreover, the movie doesn’t have a standard-issue hero.
As played by Gosling, Armstrong comes across as an emotionally reticent man who seems only able to survive by pulling a curtain across the pain that stemmed from the death of a daughter from cancer. He sheds tears when he’s alone, but doesn’t talk about the loss with his wife (Claire Foy), his sons or his friends.
A stand-out scene finds Armstrong removing himself from a gathering after the funeral of a fellow astronaut. Alone in his backyard, he scans the skies through a hand-held telescope, pushing away a concerned colleague by telling him that he's not standing alone in the night because he's looking for a conversation.
With Armstrong training, traveling and immersing himself in his work, it falls to Foy’s Janet to hold down the homefront. She does, but Foy never turns Janet into the loyal wife of cliche. She supports her husband, but she’s also angry in the way of many wives of the '60s, women who were left to tend to chores while their husbands found adventure in the workplace.
Of course, there was one key difference between Armstrong and the legions of overworked office slugs: Armstrong risked not coming home from his workplace.
And that’s the Armstrong we meet here, a no-drama guy who regards what he does as “going to work," a job.
You may want to think of First Man as a "space procedural." Chazelle takes us through the various stages of development of a moon landing that began with the Gemini program and culminated with Apollo.
To make clear the dangers at hand, Chazelle includes the cockpit fire that took the lives of White, Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham) and Roger Chafee (Cory Michael Smith), three astronauts who died in a fire during a “plugs out” test of the spacecraft.
Naturally, the moon landing becomes the movie's climax. Chazelle handles the moment Armstrong stepped onto the moon with exquisite balance. He doesn't italicize its awe or underplay it.
When the Eagle touches down on the moon, Chazelle allows the silvery expanse of the lunar surface to speak for itself, so much so that the movie goes silent. I confess to disappointment when — after some minutes of sobering silence — Justin Hurwitz’s score began to chime in.
Ryan's controlled performance makes us wonder whether the actor opened a tap and drained out three-quarters of his emotional life. That could be exactly what Chazelle had in mind. We come to understand that Armstrong performs with cool equanimity when he's able to keep a lid on anything that might break his concentration.
It may be fair to say that the movie — based on a book by James R. Hansen — finds its meaning in the choices that Chazelle doesn’t make. He takes a neutral path that mirrors Armstrong's personality. That’s not to say that the movie is without emotion or tension, but it’s not buoyed by an identifiable point of view, a limiting factor. That, an overly long running time and a slight whiff of sentimentality keep the movie from greatness.
Still, First Man struck me as a far more ambitious and worthier work than either Whiplash or La La Land, two of Chazelle's previous movies.
Chazelle has been criticized for not showing the moment when Armstrong planted an American flag on lunar soil. Please. I took the omission as a significant part of Chazelle’s approach. He wants us to see the Apollo mission fresh, to avoid the kind of signature images that have degenerated into cliche.
As if to emphasize work-a-day life in the space program, Chazelle also refuses to celebrate the hotshot pilot ethos that made The Right Stuff so engaging. Only Corey Stoll’s Buzz Aldrin approaches his job with bravado and public expressions of ego. It’s not something that Chazelle dwells on.
At two hours and 15 minutes, the movie's tension and single-minded determination become a bit of a grind, so much so that the lunar landing generates more relief than excitement. I don't mean that as a criticism. When the Eagle lands, the movie relaxes.
I’m one of those people who believe the US benefits from a strong and adventurous space program. First Man reminds us that no such program can be risk-free and leaves us to ponder whether the rewards are worth the risks.
Decide for yourself, but wouldn't it be grand to see the world again focused in awe and appreciation at an accomplishment that really had the power to expand the way we see ourselves? I'm not holding my breath, but sometimes a little dreaming helps.