First Man starts with a bang, and then it gets deathly quiet. It’s a lot like going to space.
Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) pilots an experimental X-15 that is about to fly apart as it approaches the top of the atmosphere at blistering velocity. Chaotic camera cuts and shaky-cam strap the viewer into the cockpit with the flyboy. Then the jet breaks through to calm skies and a view of dazzling blue, the curvature of the Earth on the horizon.
But as Armstrong begins his descent, the plane bounces off the atmosphere. Alarms screech. Guts wrench. Only an iron stomach and quick thinking allow the astronaut-to-be to right his plane and make it back to the surface alive.
That sure sounds like the right stuff, and indeed, Damien Chazelle's biopic has nerves of steel and derring-do in spades. But this is no cowboy retelling of the space race. First Man is downright somber as it traces the tale of Armstrong, the man who made the history books as the avatar of American exceptionalism, a cosmic George Washington who, in Chazelle's telling and Gosling's portrayal, is hollow and lonely beneath the heroism.
What Kind of Man?
Armstrong’s words echo throughout Damien Chazelle’s movie, though not the “one giant leap” bit you might be imagining. Late in the movie, Gosling’s Armstrong says “we need to fail. We need to fail down here so we don’t fail up there.”
The quip comes after the fiery crash of a prototype lunar lander in 1968, which Armstrong barely escaped by ejecting and leaving behind a slightly charred forehead. However, the tone of struggle and triumph fills most of First Man’s running length.
By the time he says the line, Armstrong has survived the X-15 close call in 1961 and seen the death of his young daughter by cancer. The Soviet Union has beaten the U.S. to multiple spaceflight milestones. His shining moment, the first docking in space he achieved as commander of Gemini 8, nearly killed him when the spacecraft spun out of control. The movie builds up the character of Ed White, the first American to walk in space, who died in the fire catastrophe that killed three astronauts before the Apollo missions even got off the ground.
Yet Armstrong and NASA press on.
In setting a mood defined by failure and endurance, First Man achieves the unlikely: making a modern audience that knows Armstrong will succeed—that knows his mission will define American achievement—feel doubt. The astronaut’s doubts about himself, the nation’s very real doubts at the time, when many called Apollo a waste of money. That the glittering hunk of metal won’t crash on the moon’s surface.
Such sparseness is rooted in Gosling. As Armstrong, he broods as much as he speaks. He keeps meticulous notes on his daughter’s cancer treatments on graph paper, a shot meant to establish both his engineer bona fides and his nature—as a man more comfortable sorting problems into quadrants than saying them out loud.
The man who would walk on the moon can’t talk to his kids about the risk. When friends die, he takes in the night sky through binoculars and turns everyone away. Characters in First Man utter the cliched movie line “...but at what cost?” about the wisdom of shooting for the moon, and it carries a subtext beyond the friends lost along the way. What kind of man does it take to deal with the danger, the stoic silence asks. And what about his family?
In this way, First Man grounds its flaming crashes and lunar ambition in a quiet family drama. “Your dad’s going to the moon,” his wife Janet (Claire Foy) tells one of the Armstrong children, who replies, “Okay. Can I go outside?”
It being 2018, First Man sparked a about patriotism over the fact that Chezelle skips the famous scene of Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planting the American flag on the moon (though it’s clearly visible in a later scene). Instead, the film cuts to a worldwide collage, people around the globe celebrating America’s achievement as a triumph for all humanity.
To be honest, the global kum-bay-a feels disjointed in First Man, just as a chest-thumping, flag-waving ending would have been. Yes, Armstrong takes the step. He utters his immortal line. But this is his story, not America’s. The lonely engineer, not the national icon.
It's true: Wherever you go, there you are. Even on the moon.