“At what cost?”
It’s a question asked by NASA’s space director to Neil Armstrong towards the end of the 60s, deep into the space race, after many failures and deaths.
First Man, the story about NASA’s decade long quest to land a man on the moon, is a mission movie that questions its own mission, and its cost — both literal and figurative. The film teeters on making it feel like a pointless enterprise, and yet there’s propulsion to Neil’s quest. He stares up at the moon, and it beams down back onto him like a spotlight. If there’s a reward, an answer, it’s there for Neil.
The film begins with Neil (Ryan Gosling) and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), haunted by their young daughter’s death to cancer. Her presence hangs like an emotional shadow over the film, transforming what could be a Wikipedia entry into an elliptical tale of grieving; a tale that happens to be told through the lens of the legendary feat of putting a man on the moon.
Gosling’s steely and stoic Neil Armstrong is a quiet hero, a good ol’ boy with a Yeager-esque drive to succeed. First Man will be labeled emotionless by some, and indeed it is a coolly observed technical spectacle, but its images of glowing light, extreme close-ups, and frenetically dialed-up action sequences are in service of creating an emotion beyond the surface — mirroring its introverted hero.
Chronicling NASA’s decade of missions certainly has an epic feel, but it gets rushed and there’s a surprising lack of time felt, somewhat weakening Neil’s arc. Claire Foy’s presence as Janet is a strong anchor but the home life drama feels like an appendage to the space missions. Where Damien Chazelle and writer Josh Singer succeed in this decade spanning story is in how they make the cost and sacrifice of these astronauts palpable. The film is loaded with warm presences from character actors like Patrick Fugit, Jason Clarke, and Corey Stoll as astronauts. Some appear in a scene, and then in the next they’re gone forever. The most striking moment of loss occurs after a fiery explosion in the cockpit. There’s a cut to an exterior image with smoke creeping through the door. You expect it to cut away, but it holds, indifferently, man’s mechanized behemoth trapping its creators. Again, “at what cost?” lingers.
Neil’s internal search is that of overcoming grief. There’s a poetic, near-spiritual undercurrent to First Man. The moon floats out of reach as a mythic beacon — like some unimaginable place where your wildest wishes can be granted. Chazelle creates this mystic current through DP Linus Sundgren’s sun-kissed 16mm images and Justin Hurwitz’s lullaby of a score. When paired together they almost feel like abstract grasps at the eternal door mankind is arriving at (2001’s presence can be loosely felt here).
First Man is content staying in Neil’s subjective POV, which limits it from having the tonal dexterity and complexity of a film like the The Right Stuff (the ultimate space flight film), but Chazelle’s technical wizardry and artful aims occasionally lend the film a hypnotic quality. The action sequences, while often staggering, are filled with technical jargon that make it occasionally hard to understand what the objective is, and there’s a lack of scale that causes it to feel less like suspense and more like a claustrophobic collage, which works as an entry into Neil’s mind, but doesn’t quite nail the visceral tension of the situation. Its DNA is rooted in biopics and mission movies — sometimes stopping it from fully blossoming — but it’s rhythmically crafted, much like his previous two knockout films, La La Land (2016) and Whiplash (2014). He’s also thematically found a connection to those films as he once again explores sacrifice for art and personal accomplishment. This is the least coherent overall film of the three, but it’s also the most emotionally resonant.
The familiar elements are more than solid enough, but First Man excels as a mood piece when it wants to — investigating its quiet hero through impressionism and minimalist music. The natural photography and ethereal space imagery are interspersed with a fetishistic examination of mankind’s technological creations. This all orbits around Neil, and when it fully aligns it’s among the best filmmaking of the year. Somewhere between the rattling of engines, turning of dials, and clicking of buttons, we ever so briefly enter a pure cinematic state; a claustrophobic roller coaster riding the edge of death and dreams.
“At what cost?” First Man’s answer to this is a simple, achingly personal one, told in an extraordinary image on the moon, and in its final shot.