FIRST MAN Review

Are you rushing or are you dragging? This quote from the most famous scene of director Damien Chazelle's second feature, Whiplash, kept coming to the forefront of my mind as I sat and took in his latest project-a project that, on the surface-feels radically different from anything the guy has done before. While Chazelle has carved out his niche by making films as influenced by the music that shape them as they are the pictures that compose them the closest thing First Man has to a musical number is a tease that Neil Armstrong was a fairly good piano player and that he might have written a musical with a friend in college. Are you rushing or are you dragging though? This line of dialogue from music instructor Fletcher via J.K. Simmons reoccurred to me though, due to the fact that this time around, in his fourth feature, Chazelle couldn't quite seem to figure out what tempo he wanted to keep. That is to say, there is this grand juxtaposition in First Man between the sections in which we're fully engulfed in the development of the NASA missions and the defining of the procedures and the role Ryan Gosling's Armstrong played in these decisions and then there is the home life of Armstrong, a visually warmer, but still very cold atmosphere that this man inhabits due largely to the fact he is still grieving and dealing with the death of his young daughter-even years after she has passed away. On their own, both serve as equally compelling narratives about a man in crisis each trying to figure out how to overcome something that has both never been done before and something they've never had to deal with or ever dreamt of having to deal with before. And sometimes, when these two disparate environments if not similar situations in regards to their circumstances come together they do so in effective ways; one crossing over with the other creating a broader picture of the layers that not only played into the daily lives of these men, these engineers, these astronauts, but into the lives of their wives (both Claire Foy and Olivia Hamilton are stand-outs in two different types of supportive roles), and their families. There is a particular instance dealing in how "good" the Armstrong's once were at attending funerals as a result of the line of work Neil was in, but while certain moments feel layered and others pop due largely to the stakes at hand there is an inconsistent tone to the overall piece where many sequences dealing in the moon missions feel as if they're rushing given the sheer amount of information screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight) is trying to cover while the more personal, introspective moments at home tend to drag in an honest attempt to truly convey Armstrong's mental and emotional processes. Fortunately, by the end, Chazelle is able to haul his intentions over these hurtles and merge the contrasting tones to create a moment that is both visually and emotionally monumental.

Ryan Gosling's Neil Armstrong suits up for a test flight in Damien Chazelle's First Man.
Photo by Daniel McFadden - © 2018 Universal Studios and Storyteller Distribution Co. LLC
While First Man may feel radically different from anything Chazelle has done before on the surface, it is actually quite similar to that of the aforementioned Whiplash. This is true in regards to the main characters of both films and their respective journeys. Both Miles Teller's Andrew and Ryan Gosling's portrayal of Neil Armstrong paint pictures of two equally obsessive and ambitious men who will sacrifice whatever personal needs fall by the wayside in order to achieve their goals. It is in the reason for the ambition that Whiplash and First Man diverge somewhat for, while Andrew was more obsessed with success for reasons of validation, Armstrong has a much more complicated reason for this need to accomplish what no other human being had even attempted at the time. For Armstrong, this drive and desire in Chazelle's film stems from the inability to find a cure for his daughter's malignant tumor that grew within a part of her brain stem ultimately resulting in the three-year-old succumbing to pneumonia. As Armstrong, Gosling plays the man who took that giant leap for mankind as a man who found it difficult to make the small steps in his life-or at least looked at life very practically and after his daughter's death found it difficult to convince himself those small steps might be meaningful or mean anything. In First Man, both Chazelle and Gosling are keen to let the audience know this is not so much a movie about space as it is a movie that concerns itself with space, but more how this great unknown relates to the grief and loneliness of this individual who was haunted by the loss of his daughter, was pathologically introverted, and seemed to feel that if he could overcome this obstacle of landing on the moon that he might be able to come to terms with this crushing loss he'd experienced. While this approach may upend certain expectations given the rather simple, all-American portrait and legacy that every generation after the moon landing has been raised on in regards to Armstrong the fact First Man deconstructs this myth and lends this journey to the moon as a more personal journey allows the film to succeed by making the heroes journey, to which we all already knew the ending, that much more engaging. Armstrong hides these emotions and troubles and like most men of that time projected only an image of complete competence and skill-all of which he was more than capable of backing-up, of course-but there was naturally more to him than this and more to his life in general. More even, than the death of his daughter as, once he is recruited by NASA, Armstrong and his family also have to deal with the pressures and needs of the mission, the eventual deaths of many of his close friends, and the brushes with death he himself would have.

It is in the dynamics between Armstrong and his family at home that give pause to the idea we needed a film about Neil Armstrong even if Chazelle chooses to give the biggest emotional weight of this story to a single scene where Armstrong's wife, Janet (Foy), forces him to sit down and tell his sons that he may never see them again once he leaves on Apollo 11. While one might have wished Chazelle would have chosen to make this aspect of our subject's life more incisive throughout so as to highlight the fact that not only was our protagonist dealing with this loss, but possibly the contrasting way in which Janet processed this life event or even the fact of how the couple was then able to go on with an older son who he himself lost a sibling and experienced this loss along with his parents as well as then having a younger son who never knew this experience everyone else in his family then shared. Though First Man is first and foremost a movie about Neil Armstrong and the ways he chose to respond and conduct himself in the wake of life tragedies it might have been more clear as to why this was the case if we had the slightest bit more context as to how those closest to him also responded and therefore potentially influenced these responses. While Chazelle effectively conveys that Armstrong's desire to escape the earth is his way of coming to terms with this loss of his daughter and that the moon landing might have served as some kind of redemption even, what is less visibly communicated in First Man is this idea that Armstrong, for being so broken and becoming more and more quiet over time given the more grief he experienced, was a man who found it more difficult to look his sons in the face and tell them the cold hard truth than it was for him to strap himself to a rocket and go farther from the earth than any human in history. It is very telling, but while it is this kind of insight or suggestion that the more personal, intuitive moments of the movie should thrive on we really only see this kind of moment where Armstrong isn't let off the hook in this scene where Janet forces him to sit down and actually confront a fear. Even in this scene, Armstrong conducts the moment as if he were in a board meeting rather than having a conversation with the two people who admire him most on the planet and who he has the most influence over. What is it that he sees in the vast emptiness of space that might fill his own emptiness is the idea Chazelle and Singer are seemingly chasing and though they have James R. Hansen's authorized biography to go off of and Gosling's strong if not stoic performance on which to build the film, Armstrong is a man as mysterious as the moon itself and therefore admittedly difficult to crack. And though we don't always glean what might leave the best impression of who Armstrong actually was what is evident by the end of the film is that so much weight shouldn't be attached to the majesty with which one lives their life, but the peace they are able to attain within it.     

Armstrong, at home with his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and their two young sons, confronts the possibility he may not return home.
Photo by Daniel McFadden - © 2018 Universal Studios and Storyteller Distribution Co. LLC
It should be evident by what this review has touched on thus far that First Man may not exactly be the Apollo 13-esque adventure/drama it initially appeared to be, but rather a more meditative and, like Armstrong himself, more introverted look at the mentality of a man who just so happened to be the first man to step foot on the moon. That isn't to say First Man doesn't also feature exhilarating sequences of space travel as there is one such brief moment of optimism when a docking test goes as planned that Justin Hurwitz's score spins into the more soaring symphonics audiences are accustomed to in movies that typically feature historic moments built-up to feel as iconic in the moment as they've come to be in the time that has passed since. This isn't to diminish the encompassing scope of the moon landing sequence either as Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren (La La Land, Battle of the Sexes, American Hustle) capture the moment in stunning IMAX 65 mm. It is in this final sequence, which occurs nearly two hours into the film, that the aesthetic actually switches from that of the grainier picture of the 16 and 35 mm film stock to the cleanest picture available to a modern filmmaker in the IMAX cameras. While it would seem false to try and derive any meaning for the use of standard film stock for the majority of the film to that of IMAX specifically for the short sequence on the lunar surface outside of the obvious, there is something to the choice that strikes it as being a more intentional choice. Everything prior to the moon landing that deals in space travel in First Man maintains a very claustrophobic feel. This is to say that, unlike what many were probably expecting, First Man doesn't contain a host of wide, gorgeous shots of the Johnson Space Center in Houston or even of shuttles taking off, but rather Chazelle keeps his camera inside the cockpit only allowing us to see as much of the outside world or blackness of space as the astronauts inside could. The sound design is key here as well as, while Hurwitz's score is top notch, it is in these sequences where shuttles take off or burst through the atmosphere that we feel the rivets, the unwieldy doors, and the nuts and bolts that make-up the craft shake so much it's as if they could come loose or fall off at any moment. Sandgren focuses his camera on these elements, these things that look like they belong more to a bygone era than they do today, so as to remind us of how little was actually in between these men and the vacuum of space. Furthermore, First Man does feature a host of credible character actors you'll recognize each of which brings you further into the life of Armstrong while Foy is of particular note playing this wife who is straddled with a role akin to that of a wife whose husband has gone off to war where she has to wait to hear if her husband is coming back or not. Foy turns what feels like it might have been a more slight or underwritten character into one of great depth and heartbreak simply by the way she knowingly looks at her husband. Through all of this though, what is maybe the most valuable thing to come out of First Man beyond a better understanding of who Armstrong, the man, truly was is this reinvigorated sense of appreciation for this outlandish and radical thing these men actually accomplished that we have kind of come to take for granted today.