‘First Man’: The Cost of Shooting for the Moon
Jasper Ng writes about Damien Chazelle’s fourth movie, which doesn’t require jazz to dazzle the audience
In cinema’s recent ventures into space, there have been visual spectacles like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and kaleidoscopic narratives like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, but never have movies in this genre been as grounded — literally — as Damien Chazelle’s latest film, a historical drama.
Chazelle recounts a familiar story through a different lens, almost making it a completely new narrative in of itself. Everyone already knows the famous words Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) utters after his first steps on the moon by heart, so Chazelle’s giant leap forward was to depict the majority of his film on Earth: in mission control, training facilities, and 60’s suburban driveways.
Instead of completely indulging our fascination with interplanetary travel, most of First Man engrosses us with the toil and sacrifice that Neil and his family endure in the eight years leading up to the Apollo 11 mission. Armstrong’s wife, Jan (Claire Foy), has just as much gravity as Gosling’s character, and it would be a mistake to see this film as merely an ode to Neil. The film’s nuance comes from the chemistry and dynamic — often sympathetic and confrontational at once — of Gosling and Foy’s characters and the effect their relationship has on one another and their children. However, there are still plenty of riveting NASA missions to keep you at the edge of your seat.
Much of First Man hinges on the repercussions that Neil’s commitment to the space dream had on himself and his family. The film constantly asks us the question of whether Neil sacrificed all too much for the Apollo program, whether his constant absence from home permanently scarred his marriage, whether he neglected his duty of fatherhood in his sons’ most formative years.
And there’s so much attention to detail, especially in mise en scène, to bring this story to life. The Armstrong’s house looks deserted, with little furniture and bare walls, and is a touch in set design that reflects the desolate state that Neil’s mission has left on his home. No one is ever at home, so why keep it hospitable? The interior design of the rockets also makes the space missions nerve-wracking and turbulent — exactly how they should be. As a rocket fires for takeoff and begins shaking irrepressibly, we realize that these spacecrafts aren’t indestructible marvels of innovation. It makes every one of these launches raw and terrifying, a great decision by Chazelle.
The cinematography, orchestrated by Linus Sandgren (who collaborated with Chazelle in La La Land), makes our time inside these spacecrafts even more exciting. The camera work in First Man is mostly handheld, and Sandgren makes us feel more by seeing less. Instead of cutting to shots of the exterior of the rocket, which would give us a sense of security, nearly all space missions have the camera inside the rocket with the crew. The effect is claustrophobic and gritty, and imposes on us an uncertainty that was likely experienced by the crew themselves. We never truly comprehend how small the spacecraft is until the camera is right on the nose of the actors.
There are also other ways in which Chazelle makes this movie his own. Because much of Neil’s journey leading to his moon landing happened behind closed doors, Chazelle was able to sprinkle his own interpretations of the story throughout First Man. The death of Neil and Jan Armstrong’s two-year-old daughter, Karen, serves as a somber backdrop for the film and is one of the main catalysts for why Neil often seems cold and lacking of empathy. Additionally, in the accounts of the actual moon landing in 1969, Neil wandered over to a crater some 60 meters west of his lunar spacecraft. To this day, no one is sure of what Neil was thinking or doing as he stared into the depths of that crater, but Chazelle used it opportunistically as a wistful moment of Neil releasing Karen’s bracelet into the dark basin. There are plenty of other moments where Chazelle is able to use the ambiguity of real-life transcripts or accounts to his advantage, and one that stands out is a heart-tugging moment with Neil and his sons before heading to the moon.
Foy’s performance of Jan all the way from Wilmette, Illinois is so personal and, at times, overpowering, that it’s hard to imagine she’s most famous for portraying the calm and collected Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s The Crown. Foy is excellent in showing that Jan wasn’t just a housewife, but the rock keeping the Armstrong household together during the many days, months and years that Neil seemed to be away.
And in his second partnership with Chazelle, Gosling plays a stoic and haunted Neil in a performance that isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, but everything that we needed. I’ve always admired Gosling for acting truly as his characters would — nothing more, nothing less. His work in Blade Runner 2049 or Drive are good examples of this, and he sticks to his bread and butter in First Man.
Kyle Chandler and Corey Stoll — among other household names like Jason Clarke — are by all means the right castings. But my concern isn’t what these actors bring to the table; rather, it’s the screen time allotted for their characters to develop. It’s uncertain whether Chazelle could’ve afforded more screen time for his side characters, as the film already stretches over two hours. It would be a tough balancing act, but it feels as though much of the cast were just rungs for Neil to climb on his way to the moon.
First Man takes us through the countless flight tests, conditioning exercises, and funerals that were necessary to make the Apollo program a reality. It’s up to us to decide whether the pursuit of this space dream was a reckless debacle or the crowning achievement of mankind. And Chazelle wants us to know that there is no right answer.
Jasper didn’t want to spoil it, but in the end, Gosling’s Armstrong does make it to the moon. You can read more of Jasper’s work here.