One of the greatest American achievements is portrayed elegantly in Damien Chazelle’s intimate portrait of the man at the center of the accomplishment.
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on the surface of the moon. This was, arguably, the greatest single American achievement ever. But aside from the machines that were built and the math relied upon to pull off this amazing feat, three men were in space and ultimately one was at the controls when the eagle landed. And Armstrong remains an enigma to this day.
Played with a peerless empathy by Ryan Gosling, in a role that could bring him the Oscar, Armstrong is depicted as a solitary man, whose emotions are almost invisible to everyone around him. For example, after a terrible tragedy that results in the death of his fellow astronauts, Armstrong pines away in his backyard looking up at the moon. He’s all alone. His wife watches him from the kitchen. And when another astronaut, Ed White (Jason Clarke), tries to talk with him and encourage him to seek some comfort with his wife and children, Armstrong lashes out in about as emotionally as he can. He asks White, very flatly, whether it looks like he needs someone to talk to by standing alone in the dark in his backyard. White, like most everyone in Armstrong’s life capitulates and leaves him alone with his thoughts.
This is Neil Armstrong.
As the march to 1969 and the voyage to the moon approaches, Armstrong is shown as single-minded, quietly obsessed with the mission and success. As his foil is Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), the cocky jerk, who is shown alienating himself from his fellow astronauts and playing up to the media with rhetoric and bravado. To be fair, Aldrin, his ego and his presence, was necessary. The public needed someone to connect with and someone willing to appeal to the celebrity of the event. This odd couple did the impossible.
The look of “First Man” is richly authentic. Shot on grainy but lush film (16mm, 35mm, and 65mm) the vintage appearance is really impressive. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who worked with director Chazelle on “La La Land,” not only uses the film stock, shot in various aspect formats, to set the time and place, but he frees the camera from restraint. The handheld nature of so much of the camera work is disorienting in a marvelous way. The effect is to mirror the disorientation indicative of space flight. From the opening sequence, we are there, in the confined space of the compartment, experiencing, as if first-hand, something of what it was to do this thing. It’s immersive and humbling.
Led by the stoic Gosling, who has done this type loner character before in films like “Drive,” the performances are all uniformly top notch. The approach taken by everyone is utterly mature. Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong is a stand-out, with her mousey hair cut and mastery of a plain American accent. And Stoll, who has so many times played arrogant characters on screen, is perfect for Aldrin. The script adapted by Josh Singer (“The Post” and Oscar winner for “Spotlight”) from James R. Hansen’s book, provides a rich assortment of personalities that all individually distinguish themselves on screen. It is an ensemble of major acting talent, but not one of the big names overwhelm the nuance and sophistication of the narrative.
Sophistication might sound like code for boring. And while Armstrong is not the most charismatic hero, the focus on his hidden motivations is fascinating. We learn early that he and his wife lost a child to cancer, and this loss, the inability to best the disease with science, haunts them. Armstrong, who was educated as an engineer and kept meticulous journals concerning his daughter’s treatment, is especially shaken by the death. Carrying this failure with him, the film posits that he internalized his feelings, drawing upon them when faced with impossible odds. This context helps us understand the first man.
There is a moment when I literally couldn’t breathe while watching “First Man.” The module has landed and the first steps on the lunar surface are in progress. For a moment, the film transports you there. It’s awe-inspiring. And at the heart is a man, who we understand a little bit from the inside, despite his efforts to wall us off. “First Man” is a very special and intimate cinematic experience.