Damien Chazelle presents an earnest biopic, in every sense.
It’s notable that, being the youngest person to ever receive the Best Director Oscar, Damien Chazelle’s career has been defined by his obsessions with the past. It took him two movies to sate his passions for jazz and its legacy, and, even then, it remained the foundation of his 2016 attempt to re-launch the movie musical into relevance with La La Land. His handling of that legacy, and his own nostalgia, in general, has been clumsy at times but is bolstered by an undeniable talent for the creation of stories that feel immensely, even if they aren’t, by typical studio standards, immense. It hasn’t been until First Man that Chazelle has helmed a project with a truly modern-Hollywood sense of scale, or one actually set in the past. But the story of the first man on the moon, told over the course of an entire decade, actually stands out as his quietest film yet – if still not his most timely.
Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy play Neil & Janet Armstrong, and, as we’re introduced to them in 1960, they live a nearly idyllic life. The almost-cabin they live in, nestled between hills and surrounded by trees, reads like a postcard for the pastoral American Dream, a pastiche Walden. The dream, like always, doesn’t last, and what serves as Neil’s call to action is the death, by cancer, of Armstrong’s young daughter, Karen. The film treats this tragedy as the defining moment in Neil’s life, and as the thing that will carry him through his mission across the next decade.
As written & directed by Chazelle, most of the journey is followed with sparse dialogue and tight close-ups, many of them extreme. We learn of Neil & Jan’s marriage by the camera’s pan to their ringed fingers, and we discover a system failure during a launch from within, as the pilots do, by looking closely at the dials ahead. The movie is obsessed with providing sensory details to give us the experience of moving across, or above, the Earth. Listen to the small conversations the crew have after leaving the atmosphere (“Smells like charred electrical insulation.” “Did you bring any music to listen to?”), or see how long Armstrong’s gaze lingers on his own footprint, amazed he can touch the moon as he would anything else.
The soundscape, too, is made up of banal white noise, heightened to a pitch: there are the sounds of science, consisting of metal on metal, and the silence of home life, with crickets, creaking wood, elbows on tables. First Man alternates between these settings, but drives no formal wedge between them. After the family ships out to Houston, notice how Neil’s first training sequence is intercut with Jan’s meeting of their new neighbors, how instead of extracting irony or humor from the distance between the two, they’re treated with the same dramatic underpinning. The endless numbers of Neil’s view are as immediate & important as the warm tray of cookies offered to Jan by the wife next door.
The result, as the film builds a single world around Armstrong’s domestic and professional lives, is a profound tactility – an especially rare quality in any film featuring space travel. The time period helps, in this regard: the technology feels old, archaic and uncleaned. To see the first flight of the film, to see the rattling screws and analog measurements barely hold together as Neil breaks through the atmosphere, is to understand clearly the near-absurdity of the planned voyage. These are just people, building rockets out of the dirt. It’s audacious, and expensive, and idiotic, and will be incredible.
During the aforementioned training sequence, the head of the program (Deke Slayton, played by a solid-as-ever Kyle Chandler) tries to put things into perspective. To-scale, across two chalkboards, he draws the length of the journey to the moon, right next to the meager-by-comparison trips of Sputnik & other satellites. The camera gets in so close to his hand that you can actually see the white chalk break & disperse against the green; we can almost feel the sound in our body as if we were scraping the stick across the surface ourselves. Those tiny vibrations are what First Man is made of. The film’s mission, like Neil’s, is to build this long line, this bridge, between the earth we know and the moon we do not, and to do it through touch, through what it feels like to be alive, here or there.
In this, it’s affecting. The connection is built, slowly, through sacrifice, and every test flight gives us less a sense of journeying beyond the Earth than that the Earth is, itself, being stretched toward the moon. The sounds & images become the same, only a little different. The lone sound of a small coffin being lowered into the Earth gives way, eventually, to that purest of silences on the lunar surface.
That silence, we understand, is what this Neil Armstrong has been looking for the whole time. We know it because Gosling’s performance is so effectively internalized, so self-contained in a masculine way that’s extreme even for the time period. It’s the writing that does this to him, and it’s in this image of a stoic, white, mid-century hero that Chazelle’s nostalgia makes its appearance. Though the film doesn’t hold Armstrong as a perfect man, it does hold his demeanor in high enough regard that the character would fit nicely into a contemporary Eastwood movie. Here is an American man: see how he does his job, does it well, and does not boast; see how he suffers loss and does not complain.
And so much of the social tumult of the 1960’s is left out. We get the sense of a vague nationwide reckoning, thanks to televisions in the background; Karen’s death and its aftermath might have even been an effective mirror of the splintering that the country was experiencing as Apollo was being prepared. But the film, the spitting image of that Midwestern cabin, ignores the fact that the lost tranquility of the previous decades never really existed and doesn’t let in enough of the outside world to avoid having its protagonists’ depiction seem retrograde. This cliche sticks out, mainly because the film’s aesthetic values are so distinct from the last few years of major-release, historical biopics (see: Darkest Hour, The Imitation Game, Hidden Figures, The Theory of Everything).
And yet the twin performances remain entirely commanding, as they have to be. I can’t imagine a screen-testing process for First Man that didn’t include directions like “just look up, for 30 seconds, and we’ll keep the camera on your eyes.” So much is done so close to them, and to us, that the slightest bit of stray energy would ruin all tension. But it never happens – Foy & Gosling carry several stories in their gazes alone, and are content to let that be all we get. It’s plenty. The film belongs to both of them, and it knows it.
I’m not sure how Chazelle could have invited anyone else into the movie, properly, without losing the sense of texture that makes it work; First Man is, above all else, a very personal story, and a very subjective one. It ends, fittingly, with an image of two hands, two celestial bodies, nearly touching. It’s through that same sense of touch that the film builds an entire world around itself. And that world, as insular as it is, proves hard to leave behind.