Following the success of La La Land, Damien Chazelle essentially guaranteed that he could make whatever the hell he wanted next. A film chronicling Neil Armstrong’s personal journey along the race to the moon certainly didn’t seem like the most obvious choice, but once the movie explodes all over the screen and somehow manages to be both a massive spectacle and a deeply personal journey, it’s easy to see why he made the choice.
First Man isn’t just a worthy (if unofficial) sequel to The Right Stuff, it’s also a thrilling reminder of a time when America strove to do things to show the world how intelligent, inventive, and brave we could be.
First Man wastes no time getting into the meat of the movie, opening with Ryan Gosling’s stoic Neil Armstrong blasting out of the atmosphere in a rickety hunk of metal on a test mission before successfully crashing back to Earth. From there it’s a trip home where Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) powerlessly stand by and watch their daughter die of cancer. Armstrong responds to the trauma just like all men of his era; he buries his emotions deep down inside to focus entirely on his career. In this case, that career is getting to the moon, so it kind of worked out. As the film glides along from one horrifying and enthralling space exploration mission to the next, Chazelle gently reveals the million different things that the space race meant to a million different people, from excited children and Russian-loathing politicians, to black rights advocates who rightly pointed out that at least a few of the millions spent on sending a couple of white men to the moon probably could have been spent on helping out some people of color at home.
Many poignant points are made throughout First Man, but the film first and foremost flies by on pure sensation. The visual effects and sound design are astounding, but more importantly always come at the service of filmmaking techniques used to move viewers. You really feel like you’re trapped in these creaking experimental spacecraft, and even though we all know how the untested technology fared, it’s still an unbearably tense experience. The beauty of the successes is stunning as well. By the time the final lunar mission opens up the gloriously enveloping full IMAX screen, it’s impossible not to feel transported and floored. There’s beauty to behold in the experience and also in the accomplishment – an act of wonder that’s no small feat given that viewers are already well aware that all this happened.
Beyond all of the applause-worthy wonderment and excitement, Chazelle never loses sight of the human cost. The tragedies are treated with the respect they deserve. Every character is carefully developed and honored in ways that feel more truthful than calculated. Performances are impressively human and natural, especially from Ryan Gosling, who somehow manages to seem even more stoic, removed, and damaged than his characters in Drive and Blade Runner 2049 combined. At the same time, we know why his face is so frozen in pain and his emotions are so contained. Likewise, Claire Foy isn’t stuck playing a plot device stay-at-home wife. She has her own journey. Everyone does.
Beyond all the science, adventure and excitement, First Man is very much a film about people. There’s always a human cost to dedicating one’s life to obsessive pursuits, even if fame, legacy, and history tend to obscure it. Nevertheless, none of these themes ever detracts from the visceral excitement that will sell the experience to mass audience. This is the type of movie that gives Hollywood a good name. Damien Chazelle was the right filmmaker for this material, and as his career keeps barreling forward in surprising ways, it’s starting to feel like he’s the right filmmaker for most anything.