In 1968 Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” premiered, offering a portrait of space travel that envisioned spacious, fastidiously made vehicles transporting their human occupants beyond the hold of earth in slow, smooth, perfectly calibrated motion. The following year came the NASA moon landing, which Damien Chazelle now recreates in his biographical drama about Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who set foot first on the lunar surface. And one of the major points of “First Man” is apparently to show how different the reality was from Kubrick’s beautiful, austere visuals.
So the feel of the machinery in the picture, beginning with the experimental plane Armstrong pilots dangerously high in the early sixties and proceeding through the various missions that culminated in the moon landing, is of devices cobbled together out of sheer imagination and desperate hope as well as technical wizardry. The craft develop over time, but they remain cramped, shaky and rickety—a reality accentuated by Chazelle’s decision to shoot much of the action from the claustrophobic perspective of Armstrong: even the face-on images of the helmeted astronaut, while similar in composition to Kubrick’s, are kept close-in and jerky by cinematographer Linus Sandgren. One definitely gets a sense of how primitive the equipment actually was, and—as accidents that are staged here with grim economy, or alluded to as happening off-screen demonstrate—how dangerous.
In another way, however, “First Man” is more like “2001.” Just as Kubrick’s Bowman and Poole are impassive characters, so is Armstrong (Ryan Gosling)—at least on the surface. It’s not that he doesn’t feel things deeply; indeed, the first section of the film is largely devoted to the devastating effect the death of his young daughter had on him, and later on he will experience occasional flashes in which she suddenly appears to him.
But Armstrong buries the pain beneath an exterior that appears almost preternaturally unruffled and brusque. It’s a quality that—along with his self-control under pressure and his superb skills as a pilot and an engineer—places him high among the squad of early astronauts in the estimation of NASA officials (played by the likes of Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton and Ciarán Hinds as Robert Gilruth) and distinguishes him from more extroverted colleagues—and rivals—such as Ed White (Jason Clarke), Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham) and Elliot See (Patrick Fugit). But his rigidity sometimes distresses his supportive wife Jan (Claire Foy), especially when it leads him to be less than honest and forthcoming with their sons about the dangers his missions pose.
There will be those who find the film disappointing for a variety of reason, most of them misplaced. On the one hand, they may object to the rinky-dink, seat-of-their-pants characterization of the entire sixties space program; “Hidden Figures” made a similar point, but cloaked the message in an uplifting tale of its major protagonist and the triumphalism of the outcome. Chazelle, on the other hand, emphasizes the chaotic desperation of the whole endeavor without apology. Of course that makes the accomplishment more, not less, impressive, but critics may not appreciate that.
More specifically, “First Man” has been attacked by politicians looking to score points for failing to include a shot of Armstrong planting the American flag on the lunar surface, although it’s clearly visible in scenes of the astronauts working on the moon. It’s a phony issue, not unlike the one raised when “Superman Returns” didn’t add the words “and the American Way” to the usual formulation of “Truth, Justice…” The point appears to be that unless one embraces the most extreme jingoism, you’re devoid of patriotism.
Apart from such matters, the main problem some will have with “First Man” is the character of Armstrong himself. The portrait is an accurate one—he was a difficult man who held in his emotions in check and often appeared not just inscrutable, but quietly hostile. Gosling presents him that way, in a highly controlled turn that suggests the strain bubbling beneath the surface without ever allowing it to break out. It’s a finely tuned performance that will nonetheless be too low-key for some of the actor’s fans, and does put him at something of an emotional remove from the audience. Foy’s turn is equally nuanced, but Jan is a far more demonstrative person than her husband, and the actress captures her fierce protectiveness—of Neil and their boys—well. The remainder of the cast is more functional, but all are fine, with Clarke and Stoll standing out, the former for expressing White’s stalwart professionalism and the latter for capturing Aldrin’s cocky, abrasive personality.
The technical crew—Sandgren, production designer Nathan Crowley, costumer Mary Zophres, editor Tom Cross and the visual effects team supervised by Paul Lambert—have done expert work in realizing Chazelle’s vision. Even in the non-NASA scenes, this is not a beautiful picture; visually it reflects a decade not particularly known for its loveliness, the period detail unobtrusively right without exaggeration, and even the Armstrong home scenes have a rather dark, gritty look.
Chazelle’s film is an ambitious if uneven attempt to do justice to both an American space triumph and the complex man at the center of it. It aspires to a greatness it does not achieve, but like NASA’s efforts of the sixties, the reach is itself admirable.