Neil Armstrong — an American hero and a pioneer in the field of space exploration, it’s true, but does the public en masse know his struggles as well as he and his family did? The answer, and then some, is provided in First Man, the third feature film from Oscar winner Damien Chazelle. Certainly, it was an unexpected move from the director of music films Whiplash and La-La Land to do a period piece about the greatest voyage humankind ever bore witness to, but damned if it isn’t his finest, and one of the finest movies of the year.
Grounded as an Air Force test pilot and traumatized by a recent tragedy, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling, Blade Runner 2049) applies to NASA’s nascent Gemini program to get a new start for himself, his wife Janet (Claire Foy, Breathe) and their son. In doing so, Neil is tested in all manners of speaking as he tests the limits of the atmosphere, the patience of public and politicians alike and the strength of his family.
Among the cast, Gosling finally proves his mettle in my eyes as more than a handsome face and a cutesy voice, and brings realism and humanity to the legendary Armstrong. Similarly, Ms. Foy is at her career best with this film, bringing an truthful portrayal of the struggles felt by the wife of an astronaut, wondering if the man she loves will ever come home to her and holding the fort largely by herself (bringing to mind an equally stellar Sienna Miller in 2014’s American Sniper). Other notable standouts include Jason Clarke (The Chicago Code) as Edward White, a colleague of Neil’s who serves as a shoulder for him to lean on at times, and Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous) as Elliott See, an early acquaintance of Neil’s during the interview phase of the Gemini program. Finally, Corey Stoll (Ant-Man) brings all the requisite smarm and crass behavior to the utterly asinine Buzz Aldrin — the accuracy is much appreciated!
Chazelle shows real talent as a director with this film — unlike his wanton tail-riding of other, better movies (let’s face facts, La-La Land is just a modernized An American in Paris), he seems to have gone deep in ensuring authentic performances of his actors — no one is hamming it up for an Oscar — and portraying the 1960s without glamorizing or mocking it. Also, in a wise move, the lunar landing scene is entirely film in IMAX, bringing an expanded view for such a pivotal scene, and heightening the reality of the moment — if you have the good fortune of being near an IMAX Laser theater, get your tickets now! Josh Singer’s script — itself based on a chronicle of the same name by James R. Hansen — never goes to the hysterical level of other space chronicles or period pieces. The words coming from these actors’ mouths feel natural, not at the Aaron Sorkin level of ego and hyperbole, and the events shown are certainly believable and honestly portrayed.
The film also arrives at a most apropos time, for in a day and age when public interest in our intergalactic future is at an all-time high, a film like First Man presents a reminding view to audiences; apathetic generations less concerned about contributions to history and human progress than putting band-aids on Earthbound problems — sounds to me like an additional past America, circa 2008-2016. The fact is we need to explore space continuously — even if no life exists beyond Earth, we can learn so much and further human advances in technology, medicine and countless other fields all from journeying from one habitable planet to the next. After all, why did maritime explorers look for a new world?
First Man is a brilliant, tautly-crafted film, honest in every detail, and while it almost certainly won’t win many, if any, of the awards it’s hyped to get (let’s be real, Oscars don’t do science… or honest history), it doesn’t need them. It never stoops to the overbearing caricature of space exploration and its conflicts that Apollo 13 was, nor does it bombard the viewer with fact and conjecture a la (the still very brilliant) Interstellar. No, this is a movie of its time for our time; a reminder that the future is up there, far beyond the atmosphere and, soon, the stars.