First Man is a rare bird. It’s a big, adventure movie that goes from the flats of the Mojave Desert to the surface of the moon; and it’s a deft, thoughtful film about overcoming grief. It’s got wrenching performances, and an entire sequence shot in IMAX that looks best on the biggest screen possible. The fact that these things all coexist in one film isn’t that unique—but the fact that they all play together in one piece that never loses its heart or its momentum very much is.
Based on the book of same name by historian James R. Hansen, First Man is a biopic for Neil Armstrong, the NASA astronaut first to plant a boot on the surface of the moon during the 1969 Apollo 11 mission. But instead of focusing just on the eye-popping, nail-biting specifics of getting a rocket into space, it trains its lens on the story of Armstrong as a stoic and private national hero who always stuck to the business at hand. (A space cowboy he was not.) It shows not simply the ticker-tape parades and cheering flight controllers in Houston, but the side of astronaut life that’s downright terrifying.
That balance, that through-line between the quiet and the bombastic, is turning out to be Damien Chazelle’s strongest suit. Like he did with La La Land, a simple love story given a grander scale thanks to huge musical interludes, the director excels at letting intimate indie-movie moments live right next to sweeping shots with orchestral scores—it doesn’t matter if they’re visions of dancers above Los Angeles’ Griffith Park or the Saturn V rocket launching over Kennedy Space Center. And at a time when indie directors are being handed massive genre and sci-fi franchises with very mixed results, that ability to deliver a spectacle while maintaining an auteur’s eye feels nothing short of magic. Chazelle’s is the perfect balance of cacophony and calm.
The calm, in this case, comes in the moments Armstrong (played by La La Land and Blade Runner 2049 star Ryan Gosling, who gets to do some capital-A Acting here) is looking inward. First Man begins with the illness, and subsequent death, of his young daughter Karen—long before Armstrong was called up to Project Gemini, long before Apollo. It’s followed by the deaths of Elliot See, Edward Higgins White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee—all of whom lost their lives as the result of operations during the Gemini and Apollo projects. It gets mentioned less and less these days, but when NASA was deep in the Space Race, the prospect of leaving Earth’s atmosphere at all, let alone going to the moon, was terrifying. Chazelle’s film captures that uncertainty crisply, giving his characters a chance to be people instead of just heroes. (Though, contrary to early internet rumors about the film, it does wave many, many American flags.)
Chazelle, working from a script from Josh Singer (The Post, Spotlight), also doesn’t sugarcoat what was happening around NASA in the ’60s. The backdrop of his film is full of people skeptical of the space program amidst disillusionment over the Vietnam War. (It also features an interlude of Gil Scott-Heron’s poem “Whitey on the Moon.”) The goal, it seems, isn’t to show a great achievement, but to show one that happened amidst strife, the way life often does.
But when First Man does show that achievement, it is on full, brilliant display. Much of the early scenes, thanks to production designer Nathan Crowley (Interstellar), show NASA in its dark, gritty, nuts-and-bolts beginnings—and when it comes time for Apollo 11 to blast off, the visuals are a thing of utter brilliance. The film’s moon-landing was shot in IMAX (it should also be viewed on IMAX, if possible), and serves as an almost overwhelming counterpoint to the intimate 16mm shots from inside the Eagle lander and Columbia module, a dramatic shift from the claustrophobia of a spaceship to the vast eternity of space.
First Man could have easily been a failure. The problem with doing a movie about Neil Armstrong, or any space-race astronaut, is that their defining moments have already been brought to the screen so many times before. From Family Channel docudramas to TV documentaries to Mad Men and Forrest Gump, the 1969 Apollo mission is one of the most well-known, and well-covered, events of the 20th century. There’s not a lot to be gained by showing it to people again. Had it not gone deep into the story of the person at its center, First Man would’ve fallen flat. Instead, it stuck the landing.