A metal vessel launches into the intensely black depths of space. It jerks Neil Armstrong about with alarming rapidity. Beads of sweat precipitate and trickle down his face. He is lurched and shaken about by forces beyond his control, by this craft that is hurtling him toward probable death. The camera zooms in close; the audience sees what Armstrong sees, feels what he feels. The anxiety is palpable.
This is the intense opening to Damian Chazelle’s newest drama-biopic of Neil Armstrong. These scenes set a precedent for Chazelle’s approach: he isn’t afraid to get up close and personal with Armstrong (Ryan Gosling). In each space travel scene, the audience sits in Armstrong’s suit and is confined within the rackety vessel that carries the astronaut into space. This makes for an anxiety-provoking and strikingly claustrophobic viewing experience but invokes a special intimacy that carries the film into its portrayal of Armstrong’s personal life.
Chazelle maintains unwavering focus in First Man. He documents monumental moments with a magnificent touch but also pays careful attention to more intimate scenes that provide depth to Armstrong’s character. In a role that bares similarities to Affleck’s role of Lee Chandler in Manchester by the Sea, Gosling maintains a stoic demeanor in the wake of his toddler-aged daughter’s tragic death. Armstrong masks his grief by launching himself into his work, but in rare, fragile scenes he catches hallucinatory glimpses of his daughter or breaks down alone. Chazelle captures a delicate vulnerability in these scenes and affords the audience a sensitive view of a man who is often reduced to his accomplishments. Chazelle’s dedication to Armstrong’s character doesn’t prevent him from providing context on the subject matter though. Transitioning between intimate scenes, he manages to deftly weave in depictions of historical and political conditions; for instance, he captures the nuances of the American reaction to space travel through one montage that includes a passionate performance of “Whitey on the Moon”. In addition, several press conferences serve the dual purpose of conveying Armstrong’s aversion to lightheartedness when discussing space travel and highlighting public perceptions of space exploration.
Scientific intricacies and rocket science lingo never bog down the film’s content, but Chazelle does make sure to portray the physical and emotional demands of Armstrong’s job as an astronaut and engineer. For example, one grueling scene sees Armstrong strapped into a massive gyroscope contraption, where he must manually stop the machine from spinning before he passes out (a test to assess his physicality for the Gemini mission). The sound design truly steals the stage here: all we hear is Gosling’s steady breathing, which really highlights his fierce resolve in completing the task at hand. This relentless drive is mirrored in a scene where Armstrong struggles to remain conscious as his spacecraft spins out of control. Similar to the opening scenes, this sequence showcases Chazelle’s superb technique: the image shakes violently, the close shots induce claustrophobia, and Gosling’s strained breathing rings out over the thunderous music.
As Armstrong avoids grappling with grief, his wife is left to serve as the emotional core of the family, and, fittingly, Claire Foy provides the emotional backbone to First Man. Janet maintains a mask of confidence and self-assuredness as her husband’s friends perish. One scene sees Foy tenderly approach her neighbor, a wife of a recently deceased astronaut. Fear flickers in Foy’s eyes as Janet realizes that she may be looking her own future in the face. Chazelle presents in detail Neil Armstrong’s journey, but he ensures that the audience never loses sight of the sacrifices made by his wife as well.
In the way Jurassic Park inspired a wave of hopeful paleontologists, First Man may conjure the same feelings of glory through Chazelle’s sweeping shots of the moon as Armstrong takes his first, ground-breaking steps. However, the film certainly does not glamorize space travel; in fact, it brutally captures the physical tolls, familial burdens, and grief that accompanies Armstrong’s career as an astronaut, an all-too-often romanticized profession. Think about it: “astronaut” is a classic answer to the childhood question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, but how few of us ever consider the grueling demands of such a career? Chazelle makes it clear that an astronaut is not just a pilot nor an engineer but a wealth of immeasurable knowledge, confidence, and bravery. This is not a job for those of weak ambition (or of weak stomachs). That Neil Armstrong exceeded the demands of his job, despite facing immense personal tragedy, is a testament to the dedication of astronauts, and is a fact that Chazelle dwells upon with great care.
Damien Chazelle’s foray into space truly succeeds in every way possible: cinematography, character development, sound editing. Bolstered by these elements and an incredibly adept cast, First Man dually captures mankind’s “giant leap” into the great unknown of space exploration and, ingrained with raw emotion and vulnerability, stays beautifully tethered to Earth.