Damien Chazelle’s First Man portrays space flight in a way audiences have never seen before. We’ve experienced the mythic macho of The Right Stuff, the absorbing tension of Apollo 13 and there’s also a small flotilla of documentaries that have walked us, often quite engagingly, through the process of flying in orbit or landing on the moon. But never has the experience of space flight seemed as physical, as visceral or indeed as brutal as it does in First Man. For all the recent critical discourse about the steady gravity of Ryan Gosling’s performance as Neil Armstrong, or the steely strength of Claire Foy as Jan Armstrong, this movie is very much a sensual experience. Perhaps the closest equivalent would be parts of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, but even that film lacks the punchy brutality of First Man, and we also shouldn’t forget that Interstellar was science fiction. The events of Chazelle’s film really took place.
To be fair, at times, one could be forgiven for mistaking First Man for science fiction. Particularly the final sequence of the actual Apollo 11 moon landing (spoilers? I guess?). The image of the vast unspoiled lunar landscape, punctuated by a small moving point of light falling towards it, would not be out of place in many a science fiction masterpiece. When Armstrong descends the Eagle’s ladder towards the moon, we’re even treated to Kubrick’s “breathing” sound effect to no music, which, to be fair, would actually be the only sound heard by the astronauts at the time. But most of the film dispenses with the tropes of glory shots and stately moving man-made objects in space in exchange for a radical subjectivity that shows us the experience through the eyes of the men who took the risk.
And there’s one of the key themes of the film: risk. From the very first shots of the film – a wild sequence, almost entirely without dialogue, set in the cockpit of the legendary X-15 rocket plane – Chazelle’s use of sound effects and hand-held camera emphasizes the fragility of the machines in which these pilots chose to risk their lives. Every rivet and bolt is lingered over, and the audience is invited, not to their comfort, to contemplate how hand-made and relatively low-tech these supposed marvels of engineering really were. It took real bravery for people to put their lives in the hands of such machines, but people did, and while adventure was certainly part of it, they also knew they were making history. Risk was a necessary part of the process.
First Man doesn’t gloss over the sometimes-enormous costs Apollo incurred in its risk-taking. Not in financial terms, of course (although a scene in Washington portrays the penny-pinching pearl-clutchers as the petty and shortsighted politicians they were), but in human lives. The film takes pains to flesh out two astronauts who are rarely featured in popular re-tellings of those times: Ed White (Jason Clarke), whose spacewalk footage is iconic but the man himself is not, and Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), whose name the average viewer probably wouldn’t even recognize. See, like other astronauts with names like CC Williams, Charles Bassett, or even the man who would have been the United States’ first African-American astronaut, Robert Lawrence, was killed before he even had a chance to fly in space. Those of us who know these names know when we’re first introduced to the characters that they’re doomed, but the suspense is amplified by the fact that, in the reality of the narrative, the other characters don’t. Armstrong’s close friend and neighbor White features prominently for about ¾ of the film, which makes his sudden death in January 1967 in the Apollo 1 fire personally devastating to our protagonist, but it’s not the first of his personal losses.
In fact, the film is framed by personal loss. As the film opens, as soon as Armstrong is back on the ground from his wild X-15 flight (in actuality his first trip into space), Chuck Yeager himself notes that he’s a good pilot but “distracted”. The distraction is the illness of his two-year-old daughter Karen, dying very quickly from a brain tumor that would be challenging to treat today, but all but impossible to remedy in 1962. Armstrong cradles his dying toddler in his arms and softly sings a song about the moon, in one of the film’s many quietly emotionally wrenching moments. After her death he sobs uncontrollably in private, but is soon back to work. This motif is repeated throughout the film, with the losses and grieving piling up behind the whole program. But rather than slow or discourage the astronaut, each loss is treated more as a sacrifice to a great Mammon, each propelling him and the program faster towards the ultimate goal, that elusive sphere in the sky. At one point, when the great project is nearing its culmination, a manager asks whether it’s all worth the sacrifice, and Armstrong coldly replies that it’s a bit late to ask that now. While the world cheers and celebrates the landing at the end, for Armstrong it becomes an occasion for tears, remembering the cost of getting him to where he is.
While the astronauts were certainly aware of the risk and the cost of their enterprise, they rarely (with the exception of Corey Stoll’s Buzz Aldrin) articulate it. That’s left to their wives, headed in this telling by Janet Armstrong, played with relentless intensity by Claire Foy. Foy is the film’s secret weapon, bringing an emotional reality to the situation from which Armstrong is, at least in public, quietly detached. The scene in which she forces her husband to explain to their sons what he is about to attempt, the night before he leaves for NASA to begin his mission to the moon, is almost as harrowing as the flight of the X-15. Younger son Mark asks questions, to which Armstrong responds, running the meeting as if it were taking place in a corporate boardroom. Older son Rick, more aware of what was about to happen and the chances of never seeing his father again, simply stares, an expression borrowed from his formidable mother, and rather than crying or hugging his father, coolly shakes his hand. In Arthur C. Clarke’s original novel of 2001, he predicted that only bachelor astronauts would be permitted to travel on long and dangerous missions because it would be too cruel to send family men to their possible deaths. In reality, just about all of the astronauts were fathers and husbands, and many left behind a grim trail of widows and orphans in the wake of their adventures. (Not to mention all of the broken marriages.) Apollo had a personal cost to many families, and the film reminds us of that.
But First Man is, more than anything else, a physically absorbing experience. It’s a spare film, with little room for conventional dialogue and character scenes, and more of a collection of intense technological sequences interspersed with poetic, pregnant shots of life apart from the business of flying. It works because of its focus and relentlessness, very much like Chazelle’s early film Whiplash. It grabs the audience and refuses to let it go. The final shots, again without dialogue, leave whatever resolution or catharsis the drama earns in the hands of the audience. That sort of storytelling is all too rare in modern American cinema, and it’s what makes this film one of the most remarkable to emerge in recent years. Though it’s been said before, it bears repeating: this is a film by adults, for adults. Any film to which that label can be applied deserves to be celebrated, and seen.
If I may say so: Welcome back, Ian – you’ve been missed! I just sampled and re-read some articles/essays from your impressive Sequart archives, e.g. Jodorowsky’s Dune, 2010: Adaption of an adaption, The Martian (book), Science Fiction doesn’t have to be dystopian (I agree wholeheartedly – someone should flesh out your take to a complete anti-dystopian manifesto), The Magnificent Ambersons (an exellent primer on this tragic classic), A defense of Star Trek The Motion Picture, and An existential reading of The Big Lebowski.