Written By: Daniel Kinsley
“Technology, after all, is still man’s handiwork; man is the one to watch.” -Michael J. Arle
When First Man (2018) premiered at the Venice Film Festival, it came saddled (perhaps unfairly in hindsight) with a number of expectations about its box office appeal, as well as major awards buzz. After only grossing about $100 million (on an estimated budget of $60 million) the film failed to gain much momentum during the awards season, landing only a few below-the-line considerations at the upcoming Oscars. Adapted from the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong (the only authorized biography on the man) the biopic shirks the cradle-to-the-grave approach and covers a period of roughly 8 years, from Armstrong’s entrance to the burgeoning space program and culminating with the event that ended the Space Race: the first man to step foot on the moon. It is a shame that audiences largely shied away, as it is one of 2018’s best films, and an impressive next step from a young, exciting filmmaker.
The film opens in 1961. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is a NASA test pilot with a background in engineering, responsible for running test flights on an experimental rocket plane called the X-15. From its opening moments, director Damien Chazelle establishes a strong and harrowing visual language. As the craft by bounces off of the atmosphere, Gosling and the plane are framed in tight close-ups, the roar is deafening; it is all at once, thrilling and tremendously frightening. * While seminal space films like The Right Stuff (1983) or Apollo 13 (1995) focus as much on the excitement of the mission as any drama, First Man wants to impress upon you more than anything else how terrifying it must have been to be among the first men in space.
After a series of recorded mishaps, Armstrong is grounded over concerns that he is distracted, and thus unfit for duty. During this time, Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are in the midst of crisis: Karen, the couple’s two-year old daughter, has been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Armstrong keeps detailed notes on her illness, and desperately seeks any kind of effective treatment, but she soon dies. Stricken by grief, Armstrong applies (and is accepted into) Project Gemini, NASA’s second human spaceflight mission. When asked about why he believes space flight is important, Armstrong explains:
“I had a few opportunities in the X-15 to observe the atmosphere. It was so thin, such a small part of the Earth, that you could barely see it at all. And when you’re down here in the crowd and you look up, it looks pretty big and you don’t think about it too much. But when you get a different vantage point, it changes your perspective. I don’t know what space exploration will uncover, but I don’t think it’ll be a exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it’ll be more the fact that it allows us to see things that maybe we should have seen a long time ago, but just haven’t been able to until now.”
After the death of his daughter, Armstrong (whom we are not led to believe was a gregarious man to begin with) turns inward in a crucial way. Throughout the remainder of the film, he is portrayed as an enigma to his friends and family, and Gosling plays the role to near stoic perfection. It is a part that plays to his strengths as a performer, as he is asked to convey a tremendous amount of emotion without speaking much. At one point, Janet remarks that he has never spoken to her about the death of their child; indeed, the closest he comes to speaking about his daughter at all is during an evening stroll with fellow astronaut Ed White (Jason Clarke). It is a rare moment of vulnerability from Armstrong, and the significance of the moment is not lost on Ed, who struggles painfully to find the right words to say his friend before his walls go back up. Armstrong is a man who has been broken by his grief, and to even so much as as acknowledge the enormity of his pain would be his undoing. Instead, he turns his attention fully toward reaching the stars. It is a haunting and lovely dichotomy that drives the man (and the film) forward.
During the scripting process, screenwriter Josh Singer worked closely with author James Hansen, as well as NASA historians, in an effort to include as much historical accuracy as possible, not only regarding the space program, but Armstrong’s personal history as well. The film introduces now-famous players like Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham) and Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) and recreates major events like the Gemini 8 mission, in which Armstrong successfully docked with another spacecraft (in the film’s most harrowing sequence) as well as the preflight tragedy of the Apollo 1 mission, which took the lives of White and Grissom. ** Nearly every significant role is populated with a recognizable face, which lends a lot of credibility toward selling what amounts to limited screen-time for many of them. Much like the Armstrong portrayal, the film defies easy attempts at romanticizing these men in favor of highlighting the immense focus and nerve it took to accomplish what they did.
If tragedy continues to follow Armstrong (he learns of the devastating Apollo 1 fire during a rare moment of diversion at a White House event) then it perhaps weighs even more heavily on his family (and the families of the astronauts who lost their lives). While Armstrong compartmentalizes his pain, Janet is asked to bear the same burden while taking care of the couple’s two young boys, along with the knowledge that her husband could be gone in an instant. Foy subverts the role of the typical wife-to-the-man in her unflinching support, and coiffed hairdo; Janet is anxious and tightly wound, and while she supports her husband (and even to a degree accepts his distance) the film never portrays her as being overshadowed by him, even at his most difficult. It is a strong performance that both builds upon and compliments the quietly devastating work done by Gosling, as their relationship increasingly feels like it is built on a series of missed connections, and the unspoken, but still deeply painful burden of loss. Prior to the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, things finally come to a head between them. Armstrong plans to quietly leave, but Janet refuses the duty of explaining to their sons that there is a chance they might never see him again. It is a heart wrenching scene, made all the more of a gut-punch by his son Rick reacting by standing tall and offering a handshake and a “good luck”.
When Apollo 11 reaches the moon, it is a moment punctuated by silence, the images made all the more stunning by their stillness. After performing a series of choreographed maneuvers, Armstrong stands over the Little West Crater and tosses a bracelet that once belonged to his daughter into the void, memorializing the loss that he has carried privately for years. *** In the hyper-masculine culture of the 1960s, there was no release valve or healthy way in which to express the things that must surely have been in his heart; fear of his own mortality, grief at having experienced so much loss. It is there, on the farthest reaches of man’s grasp, that Armstrong finally seems able to relinquish his burden and begin to heal. It is both the summit and the axis of his searching, as it feels impossible to disentangle the professional from the personal. If awe can act as that which puts everything else in perspective, then this writer can hardly imagine a more humbling instance than the one experienced by Armstrong. While the lunar landing was the work of many, many people, this particular story is told through the eyes of one man. It is a historically triumphant moment made no less magnificent because of its intimacy, as it embodies both the ingenuity of mankind, as well as the endurance of the human spirit.
After the mission is successfully completed, Armstrong returns to Earth, where he is placed in quarantine. He and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) watch a replay of the famous JFK “We choose to go to the Moon” speech, before finally, Armstrong is reunited with Janet. For the first time, there is a sense of connection between them. In a wordless scene, the couple are seated across from one another, separated by glass; when she reaches out to him, placing her hand on the glass, he reaches back, finally able to again accept her love.
* It is also a film that demands to be seen on the biggest, loudest screen possible to fully appreciate the immensity of the technical achievement on display.
** As much as possible, practical sets were built and shot on, and even the sounds are entirely accurate, as provided by NASA records.
**** There is no evidence that Armstrong actually left anything on the moon, though the moment he stood over the crater is factual. This conjecture was based on a hope expressed by Armstrong biographer James Hansen, a possibility which was encouraged by Armstrong’s sister, June.