FIRST MAN Review: A Unique Man for a Dangerous Mission
We hear a lot about the inherent difficulty of space travel, and only a little about how it feels. Decades of historical education and pop culture depictions have shown us the complicated nature of the physics of rocket propulsion, planetary orbits, G-forces, and so on, as well as the years of education and training required to master them. The same pop culture has often also instilled in us the awe and spectacle of the endeavor, the pride in having accomplished such an massive and impossible task. Images of the triumphant launch in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 may come to mind when reflecting on space exploration, among dozens of other films and media documenting the early days of the Space Race. While many of those works, especially Howard’s, communicate the fragility of such missions, they usually frame it as yet another challenge to zealously overcome, a demonstration of man’s ingenuity over nature and little more.
What I had never felt, before sitting down for First Man, was the raw, inherent terror. The claustrophobia of the flight capsule that shakes violently too and fro. The telltale creaks of the metal frame of the rocket, nuts and bolts popping and scratching as they strain and expand. The roaring screech of atmosphere on metal outside the cockpit, like an enraged and unseen beast threatening to rip the whole vessel to shreds. A sound that could be totally normal, but could also just as easily spell doom. You’re not sure, because no one has ever done this before. The entirety of the sensory experience seems to scream against the very bounds of reality - this should not be possible. And yet it is. The film contains several of these sequences, each one a masterwork of sound design and cinematography. Just one is enough to quash any ill-founded dreams of space travel.
A particular kind of person is needed to endure such an experience. First Man looks very closely at one of them, Neil Armstrong, in the lead-up to the Apollo 11 mission to visit the moon. As portrayed by Ryan Gosling, Armstrong is typical of the usual impression of the men of the era. He says little and gives himself to extreme emotion even less. Brilliant, determined, and level-headed, he’s exactly what NASA needs to overcome impossible odds.
Josh Singer’s screenplay, however, posits a deeper trauma that informs much of Armstrong’s behavior going forward. The film begins eight years before his famous moonwalk with the loss of his young daughter to cancer. The tragedy becomes a light undercurrent throughout the rest of the story, as Armstrong proceeds with his mission while also trying to get his head around his grief. During his first interview to become an astronaut for NASA, one of the officials ask him if he thinks his daughter’s death would have an effect on his performance. He replies, “It would be unreasonable to assume it wouldn’t.”
Gosling is one of those actors whose stoicism and lack of expression some would dismiss as boring. But he has a knack for subverting that stoicism with his eyes, which are adept at conveying either pent-up or suppressed emotion. You can see it in any one of the scenes in which Armstrong receives bad news; his face remains unmoved, but the eyes reveal the strain to push down the anger and grief he’s feeling. The scenes are not quite a deconstruction of this archetypal man, but more of a clear humanization. His costar, the chameleonic Claire Foy, who plays his wife, shares the same quality to different purposes. Often her face shows one emotion, but her large eyes tell the truth. As fellow astronauts and crew begin to die and the reality of what her husband may get to do - and that he may not survive - sets in, a quiet panic takes hold. Their son asks what’s wrong. Smiling pleasantly, she says “Nothing, sweetie.” A lie betrayed by the fretting in her eyes.
The domestic scenes are marvelously blended into the narrative with the NASA scenes, especially as Neil’s personal life bleeds over with his professional one. Neil has many great friends and colleagues, composed of a massive ensemble of character actors, whom we come to know over the course of the film. For this reason, the emotional fallout of certain events becomes increasingly potent, the stakes of the mission rendered fully real.
Hot off of his Best Director win at the Oscars, Damien Chazelle proves himself more of a chameleon than initially thought. Far and away from the Cinemascope nostalgia of La La Land, he shoots most of his film in handheld close-up. When combined with the use of 35 and 16mm film, the effect is undeniable, taking on the aesthetic of a reel of rediscovered home video footage. An intimacy and immediacy exists to the film that makes the whole thing sing. The contrast to the filming of the moon landing climax, which was shot digitally on IMAX, lends that scene an added weight and impact.
The awe typically associated with a film of this subject matter doesn’t come into play until the final moments. Many opportunities arise for that effect to be employed, and many other filmmakers would have done that. The first scene of the film, which sees Armstrong pilot a rocket into the upper atmosphere, shows a first glimpse of space. Armstrong quietly, wordlessly, blankly, takes it in. For a brief moment, his pen floats by, not unlike what we’ve seen in other films. Kubrick, not typically known for his warmth or awe, lingered on the exact phenomenon in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not so here. As soon as he notices it, he plucks it out of the air and begins jotting notes. The moment is as clear a demonstration of the man as any others we get. No place for sentiment when there’s work to do.
First Man is currently playing in theaters and IMAX everywhere.