Damien Chazelle’s “First Man,” a biography about American icon Neil Armstrong, is a fierce retelling of a well-known story. And while Chazelle checks all the boxes we’d expect him to check, he spends immense amounts of time focusing on Armstrong’s strained relationship with his family, which offers up a portrait of a man on a mission whose life is burdened by grief.
The film opens with Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) attempting to maneuver a plane in and out of Earth’s atmosphere. Whether it’s a mistake or miscalculation we don’t know, but Armstrong starts bouncing off the atmosphere. If he cannot correct the plane he’ll be lost, unable to break through the atmosphere and return to Earth.
It’s in this moment that we realize the kind of guy Armstrong is. He’s a risk taker. A calculated risk taker. He never seems to take on a challenge where he doesn’t know the odds. He’s cool under pressure. Where most of us would panic, Armstrong stays collected, thinking through his options and choosing the best possible one.
This sets the stage for Armstrong becoming the first human to step foot on the moon.
The screenplay whizzes through the years as the Gemini and Apollo missions form. Armstrong finds himself on the team testing different iterations of the moon mission until they get everything right.
At home things are strained. His wife Janet (Claire Foy) is trying to hold the household together all the while preparing for her husband to travel to space. Part of me wishes this movie was told from her point of view. Her grief and distress are palpable. Armstrong, a man of the 60s, never shows too much emotion in front of his family. He’s stoic to a fault.
Chazelle is an amazing director, but here he’s made some odd choices. He’s filmed the entire movie in 16mm trying to recapture that grainy texture of older film. It works, but it still feels a tad gimmicky. Then there’s the decision to go handheld with cameras during crucial emotional scenes that just doesn’t work. Shaky-cam during dialogue scenes seems like such an odd choice, but directors keep doing it. Bouncing the camera around for no reason while people sit around and talk.
I was, however, impressed with the way he filmed the large set pieces. This is a movie about exploring space and going to the moon. You think he’d move the camera back and take it all in. Instead this is a very personal film. Even during the most intense sequences Chazelle’s camera is right up in the face of his actors. This provides an intimacy with the characters that was unexpected given the movie’s subject.
As a movie about a grief-stricken man who is yearning for discovery it’s a great film. It just doesn’t capture the majesty of space and those early missions that some might expect.