First Man is a beautiful film celebrating the best in human achievement and brings drama and stakes to a story despite us knowing the ending. It still has some flaws, but its cast shines through and delivers a nostalgia blast of epic proportions as it tries its own moonshot of earning more Oscar gold for its director Damien Chazelle and main cast Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the eponymous First Man, and Clair Foy as his wife Janet.
The other shining star of this film is it supporting cast. This includes such mainstays as Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Ethan Embry, Ciaran Hinds, Shea Wigham, Patrick Fugit and Lukas Haas. It’s a cavalcade of “Oh, hey, I know that guy!” character actors doing their normal workmanlike best. But the true gem here is Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin. He’s everything that Armstrong is not in terms of being outward emotive, and even funny, and Stoll really relishes the part, having fun with every moment that you can.
Director Damien Chazelle here has two major moves. First he relies on the cinematography of the film to really offer some breathtaking emotions and empathy for what things were like for the early astronauts. Rather than the slick space-age feel of a lot of films about the era, Chazelle shows a lot of the dirt, grime, and machinery. We have so many other classic films that depict this era. Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff is still an amazing primer and still worthy of anyone’s attention even 35 years after it came out– focusing on the Mercury missions that predated the Gemini and Apollo programs. And Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 is an appropriate denouement for this film, as it shows what happens just less than a year later and everything that could have gone wrong that did not in the Apollo 11 mission. But the approaches could not be more different. Howard makes space feel slick and cool. Kaufman is a little more down and dirty, but less personal. Chazelle, by focusing so closely (literally) on his subject in these tight, confined spaces makes many of the films most intense moments feel claustrophobic and unsafe, even though you know the outcome of the film. Chezelle uses his camera lens to capture that feeling and put us as the audience as close to it as possible. We feel uncomfortable. We feel the tension.
His second trick is to emphasize the Man in First Man. Gosling is a character study as Neil Armstrong, with a sedate, understated tone that gives off a coldness, when we the audience recognize that underneath that placid surface is a turbulent whirlpool of emotion, barely held in check. While Gosling does an amazing job doing so much with so little, it is Claire Foy who really brings us in to the emotion of this piece. At once a master class in acting on her part, and also a commentary on the sacrifices forced on women in the era, and especially of these astronaut wives, she is able to show all of the heartbreak that we the audience feel. We empathize with her as her husband throws himself into his work and mission rather than putting his family first. His emotional compartmentalization takes a toll, and it’s heartbreaking to watch.
As I said in my review of Dunkirk last year, it’s important to note that whenever a filmmaker, especially one with the cache of a Chazelle or Christopher Nolan, at this time of greater cultural awareness decides to make a film with a mainly or even exclusively white and/or male cast, something needs to be investigated about that deliberate choice. Especially when the last film about the space program in this era was Hidden Figures, it’s social malpractice to not even note this. While I won’t go as far as The New Yorker’s claim that First Man is “accidental right wing fetish object,” it is still a story about white male heroism extolling a reserved, square-jawed version of masculinity that isn’t exactly toxic but isn’t exactly woke, either. However, to his credit, Chazelle is able to work with some of this and turn Foy’s and other women’s performances into a commentary on sexism and the gender politics of not only the 1960s, but also (reflectively) today.
On the racial bits, however there’s a bit more of a failure. One of the best bits of the film is as the Apollo missions are preparing, he cuts to some protests outside of Cape Kennedy, where we see people calling for the end of NASA and the moon mission, including a black man singing a song about how he doesn’t have a job or food to eat, but they’re putting white people on the moon. He has a point, and it’s important to note that whenever we tell a story like this that is primarily about white men, there needs to be space made as to why that choice was made. I’m not sure Chazelle really passes that bar here, but he certainly did a better job at it than Christopher Nolan did with Dunkirk. (low bar)
Regardless, the best thing you can say about a film that chronicles historical events, especially ones that are so well documented and remembered in recent history, that you feel a certain tension and anxiousness as events unfold, even though you know what is going to happen. That is the true testament of this film and why it works.
But the film doesn’t really reach its greatest heights until the very end. The scenes on the moon and the way they present it celebrate the majesty and greatness of the moment. It also has some specific personal payoff for Armstrong which will likely demand many audience members bring tissues. But perhaps its best moment is when it saves a key piece of space history into the mix. It is JFK’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech:
It’s hard to listen to this without tearing up a little bit.
“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?” (note: this was the most hilarious inadvertent laugh line in our Austin screening)
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
It’s hard to hear that, to understand the risk, the sacrifice that went into our space program, and not think about so many other societal issues that face us. Almost a decade ago I blogged about this same issue and the need to take climate change as seriously as Kennedy took going to the moon. And with the publishing of the new UN report on climate change, we now know we have even less time to avoid disastrous warming.
If you can put aside the gender and racial politics of First Man and take it as a story of everything we can and should be able to accomplish if we put the right resources into it, I hope we can take that hope that might be able to save humanity.
3.75 out of 5 stars