Before the Twin Cities preview screening of First Man, a University of Minnesota professor was invited to speak for a few minutes. NASA, he pointed out, still exists. “They make monthly videos explaining what they’re up to.”
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, an event that was presented to generations as a harbinger of the future has never seemed so distantly in the past. That recognition is the subtext of First Man, a gorgeously melancholy movie from a director — Damien Chazelle — born 13 years after the last moon landing.
Chazelle (La La Land) and screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight) take their greatest challenge and turn it into a strength: the bland impenetrability of Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon. Their approach is twofold.
On the one hand, Armstrong’s relative anonymity makes him an uncomplicated stand-in for the viewer. Key scenes, including the scene and the moment, are portrayed from a first-person perspective. When Armstrong lands Eagle on the moon, we see the harrowing process from only inside the lander, where we understand exactly what the pilot was dealing with: tiny windows and a dizzying array of spinning gauges.
On the other hand, the astronaut’s inaccessibility becomes testament to the inhuman fortitude required to rise to the top of test-pilot ranks, then survive a dicey Gemini flight and endure the unprecedented scrutiny directed at him. In addition to Right–Stuff-style training scenes, Chazelle and Singer allow a small but significant amount of criticism to penetrate Armstrong’s bubble.
As the crew suit up, Chazelle cuts to Gil-Scott Heron (Leon Bridges) performing his critical song-poem “Whitey on the Moon.” Unlike most space-race filmmakers, Chazelle reminds us that the Apollo program was lifting off during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. In 1969, the United States seemed to be fighting all its battles at once. Why this one, too?
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things,” John F. Kennedy is shown posthumously telling his constituents, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Coming near the film’s end, it’s a deeply elegiac glimpse of a president who asked Americans to make sacrifices to realize a vision of the future, not in futile pursuit of an idealized past.
That profound uncertainty about civilization’s trajectory informed the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and it’s no coincidence that First Man owes more of its tone to Kubrick than has any prior movie about the American space program. Chazelle grasps Kubrick’s essential insight that space is strange: we’re not meant to be there.
First Man has long periods of silence, and composer Justin Hurwitz eschews triumphal fanfare a la Bill Conti for the kind of postmodern mix that 2001 pioneered. Already infamously, the film doesn’t depict the astronauts planting their American flag; the flag appears in a long shot, parked next to the tiny tinfoil-covered landing module against a vast and desolate lunar surface.
Ryan Gosling has made a career of playing detached but gentle men who turn their roiling emotions inward, and his familiarity is yet another potential liability that Chazelle uses as an asset. We understand what this Armstrong is about as soon as we see him, and the filmmakers show tremendous restraint in not overplaying his relationship with wife Jan (a superb Claire Foy). The pair love each other, but it’s not portrayed as an intimate love. They weren’t texting Bitmoji back and forth, they were doing their jobs — with mutual respect and affection, yes, but at a certain emotional distance.
One of the film’s key scenes turns on the couple’s final onscreen interaction, and another turns on a tragedy that Armstrong painfully compartmentalized. The most daring thing about First Man is that it doesn’t suggest Armstrong set aside his personal concerns for the greater good. Instead, it argues, he did so because that was simply who he was. What better man to send to the moon than one who’s already there?