Most movies about space are mammoth beasts. They’re epic, vast, an attempt to capture as much of the endless void as the lens can handle. It’s surprising then that for a film of this scale, it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate to call First Man a small movie. We’ve always looked at the moon landing as a momentous achievement for humanity, but fail to look at the humans who made it possible. Damien Chazelle, in his follow-up to almost best picture winner La La Land, corrects this and then some – First Man is an immersive, exhausting ride, on a physical and emotional level.
Chazelle is never one to follow expectations. Whiplash, about a jazz drummer and his hot-headed conductor, morphs into a high stakes, edge-of-your-seat thriller; La La Land is a time warp to classic movie musicals that subverts the genre tropes for melancholic truths about relationships. Similarly, it would be disingenuous to call First Man a biopic. Sure, it traces the life of Neil Armstrong, from his first days at NASA to the moment he makes that one small step for man. But it’s also a domestic drama and a tender display of the ugliness that grief can render, the kind that’s full of warts and open wounds.
First Man begins with the death of Neil’s daughter Karen, a tragedy which he never recovers from. But he’s also accustomed to death, always living on that precipice while the Gemini and Apollo projects also claim their victims. What First Man captures so well is the immense danger of this mission. Sci-fi has always made us believe that space travel is a thrilling adventure – but in reality, it’s laborious and methodical, all about following protocol – but there are risks you can’t predict. When something goes wrong, the experience is visceral and terrifying. Replete with shaky cam and fast cuts, you almost feel motion sick.
Much of the action plays out in uncomfortable, extreme close-ups. We’re forced to see every emotion play out on people’s faces. And what perfectly apt faces we are made to dissect. Ryan Gosling is a blank canvas, his performance startlingly quiet and restrained. Even in a career set apart by quiet and restrained performances, Gosling’s Neil Armstrong is straight-edged, only rarely showing moments of weakness with a tug at the corner of his lip. Neil is a stoic figure that approaches everything with calculated precision. He never has the time to properly grieve, and as a result, he develops a hardened shell that never softens even for his kids, who he speaks to like colleagues. Meanwhile, Claire Foy is relegated to the annoyingly thankless role of dutiful housewife, but steals every minute she’s in.
There’s a balancing act to First Man that’s handled carefully. The end goal is never out of sight, but the film also refrains from getting lost in the cosmos. There are a lot of reflections – when Neil is flying out of the atmosphere, his sights are still set towards what’s below. It’s not coincidental then that its tight grip on Earth is what keeps First Man refreshingly grounded.