1. First Man does so many things right that you barely notice its real magic trick is how many things it doesn’t do wrong. It is near impossible to avoid all the landmines waiting for a movie about Neil Armstrong and the 1969 moon landing, particularly in the year 2018. There is no big speech about the good old days of America, no wistful pleading for us to reclaim our lost vision and ambition, no plaintive call for a collective mission and a united country in an age when both seem long lost, nigh impossible. This is not to say that First Man does not conjure up these feelings in the viewer—it very much does—but its greatest. accomplishment is that it does it not by nudging the audience, but instead honing in, with precision and purpose, on the job at hand, the man in charge of following it through and what drove him, and those who loved him, to such lengths. It celebrates humanity by focusing intensely on it, in all its glories and failings.
2. We first meet Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) as a remote, almost chilly flyboy who is less Maverick than a willful, stoic technician. The year is 1961, and he and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are paralyzed by the malignant tumor attacking their daughter Karen’s brain. When she dies, the family barely holds itself together and, in fact, Armstrong joins NASA in large part because the couple’s mourning is tearing them both apart. From there, we follow many of the familiar contours of the NASA story and Armstrong’s part in it, as he digs himself deeper and deeper into his work—and removes himself further and further from his family—in an obsession with … what, exactly? One of the movie’s slyest, most daring and affecting conceits is that we never quite know what’s going on with Armstrong, and neither does anyone else in the film, not least of all Janet, who is left raising two increasingly difficult boys while her husband buries himself in his work, perhaps to hide the grief that consumes him. It just turns out that work is something that’s going to change the world.
3. This would seem like a bit of a turn for director Damien Chazelle, whose Whiplash and La La Land barely seem to exist in the same universe of Neil Armstrong and the space race. But his lyrical intensity, his ability to find the hard edges of his story while still being able to leave us in awe, is a perfect fit for this material. The space sequences, of which there are three major ones, are like musical numbers of their own, with Chazelle plunging us into the terror of what’s happening, the utter sense that, for all the technical know-how and noble intentions, everything could explode at any minute without anyone having the slightest idea why. These were, after all, experiments, and with those experiments came tragic failures. Chazelle is able to ground us with the details while making sure, when it all clicks together, that it can still soar. Chazelle has shown the ability to lift us off our feet before, but this is a major step forward.
4. Foy has what, in many, many lesser movies, would be the thankless role of The Wife of a Great Man, but First Man is far too smart and savvy for that. Her Janet holds the same pain for the loss of her daughter that her husband does, but she’s not so fortunate to have his escape hatch. She’s left with the hard job of preventing her daughter’s death—and her husband’s absence—from destroying the lives of any more people than it already has, and she wears it on her shoulders and in her soul. Foy’s American accent is a little shaky, but the mournfulness in her eyes snaps the movie to attention every time she’s on screen. Gosling sometimes has a tendency to let a certain doleful actorlyness creep around the edges of his performances, but he’s perfect here as a man who is highly competent, deeply intelligent and utterly unknowable, even to himself (driven by a grief he refuses to verbalize, or even acknowledge, particularly to his wife.) This is a highly unconventional cinematic hero, let alone a patriotic one, and Gosling’s remoteness gives us glimpses of the man underneath, but not too many to let us all the way in. That we cheer for him, that he rouses us, in spite of all that, speaks to the mission … and also the man.
5. This all culminates, as it obviously had to, in the moon landing itself, and perhaps the film’s most lasting achievement is that, after spending two hours detailing every step of the process, is leaves us absolutely breathless when we get to the big payoff. We’ve seen the moon landing in other films—we’ve even seen it faked in other films—so Chazelle had quite a feat before him trying to top them, but he does, again, by keeping the humanity of everyone involved, and the enormity of their accomplishment, foregrounded at every moment. The sequence is somehow a technological marvel and also jarringly raw, the heavens and the enormous vacancy of space collapsing atop each other all at once. And even with this, Chazelle and Gosling find the exact right moment that knocks you over, both explaining everything that has come before and leaving it all elusive and opaque. This movie isn’t just about America, or the collective power of the human imagination, or one man’s heroism, or one woman’s strength in his absence. It is about how being human can mean cruelty and tragedy and loss and unimaginable pain … and how that’s still not enough to defeat us, not by a long shot. Instead, it’s our pain that drives us to such magnificent magnitudes. The pain and the achievement are inextricable from one another. They are what makes us who we are. They are why we have been great … and can be great again.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Josh Singer
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Lukas Haas
Release Date: October 12, 2018
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.