DIRECTOR: Damien Chazelle
MPAA RATING: PG-13
RUNTIME: 141 minutes
In his new film, First Man, Damien Chazelle has crafted a biopic that avoids excessive speculation. He simply presents Neil Armstrong as a man whose status as an American icon juxtaposed harshly against his own closely guarded self. The movie’s dramatic structure is as austere as its subject’s inward personality, but that doesn’t prevent it from expanding out into a compelling portrait of collaboration and accomplishment nor from featuring spaceflight sequences of exceptional technical merit.
Ryan Gosling’s meditative performance as Armstrong is a work of firm self-assessment. Each rare, externalized display of emotion is less a window to the soul and more of a reiteration of what we, as viewers, already gleaned. Chazelle frames his actors in tight close-ups with handheld cameras, as if hoping to catch these characters in the midst of their thought processes, moving beyond their spoken words and into the complex emotions that haunt them in the first place.
Tellingly, it’s the kind of investigation that Armstrong never employs, much to the frustration of his wife, Janet (Claire Foy). Over the near-decade span of First Man, she wonders if her husband would ever voluntarily express his concerns over the risks of his work and the possibility that it could add another immeasurable loss to their family. (Their young daughter died from cancer in the early 1960s).
Adding even more to the mix, the film emphasizes that these individualistic concerns coexist with vast societal reflections; events like the disaster of the first Apollo mission bring layers of public scrutiny over the space project, augmenting the anxieties of a nation living through a decade marked by upheaval.
In that sense, First Man makes good use of the fact that we know how this all pans out and instead stresses how remarkable it is that it ended in success. The movie recreates every step of the training process and viscerally depicts each flight. It cuts breathlessly from year to year, assembling a broad pastiche through a select series of tense, compact moments.
Chazelle, working from Josh Singer’s script, saves his sense of spectacle for the end. He positions the story as one of endurance, of people pressing on through the fog to an often-elusive goal, marred by tragedy and setback. Above all, there is an active effort to avoid the fatalism that inferior historical fiction latch onto, and by angling known facts through Armstrong’s inexpressiveness, the film avoids falling into the genre’s familiar trap of a self-indulgent, false sense of uncertainty.
But by the time we reach the ecstatic heights of our promised ending, such an expansive framing threatens to interrupt First Man’s desired symbiosis between its obligations to both biography and history. Eventually, we come to wonder if laying so much atop a purposefully spare conceptualization of Armstrong hinders a thoughtful character study.
When does the thorough grappling of a human psyche collide with an ostensible obligation to depict the most famous moments? Chazelle dutifully arrives at the hallmarks of the Apollo 11 mission, with its lengthy buildup to Armstrong’s utterance of the “one small step for man” quote feeling out of place for an otherwise silent and reflective moment for the character.
The realization hits us so late that it’s difficult for it to derail what we’ve already experienced, but it almost feels like a cop-out to take such an otherwise careful buildup and muffle the payoff with a play-the-hits mentality. It doesn’t help that this is followed by a final scene that frustratingly returns to fascinating, pared-down introspection. Split between two approaches, there’s no satisfying any particular side.
Still, First Man generally handles itself with enough skill to overcome its later-stage shortcomings. For Chazelle, it’s another work of bold, sparkling ambition. And there’s no denying the strength of Gosling’s work, even as the scope of the project threatens to overwhelm his quiet deliberation.
It’s a movie with an unwavering faith in the lessons we can learn from the past, but it shuns inappropriate nostalgia or uncritical revisionism. It celebrates the massive achievements of the space program because of the painstaking dedication it took to get there, not simply due to the fact that they were done. And with such humble reverence to the nuances of humanity, both in individual and collective situations, there’s an admirable, clear-eyed nature to First Man with a decisive lack of sentimental insincerity.