If you find a formula that works, why mess with it? That philosophy applies to a lot of things in life, but also apparently to Oscar season. After all, two years ago, Damien Chazelle made a deafening awards-campaign splash when he unveiled his retro-modern musical La La Land at the Venice Film Festival. But before he had a chance to enjoy a celebratory glass of champagne at Harry’s Bar, he hopped on a plane to Colorado and introduced its U.S. premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. We all know how that went. He won the Oscar for Best Picture – well, for a couple of minutes at least. This week, he decided to follow the same playbook with his technically dazzling Neil Armstrong biopic First Man. On Aug. 29, the film wowed audiences at Venice, unofficially kicking off the long march to the Academy Awards, and two nights later, slightly bleary-eyed, he stood in front of a packed house in Telluride no doubt hoping for a little deja-vu, albeit with a slightly happier ending.
First things first: Chazelle’s new film is about the early days of NASA and the fits and starts that led up to Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, uttering the famous words “one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.” That thumbnail may immediately bring to mind easy comparisons to, say, The Right Stuff or Apollo 13. But First Man isn’t quite like either of those films. It’s very much its own thing – part harrowing and exhilarating space epic on a grand canvas and part intimate character study in miniature. And while both of those elements are stunning, especially when you consider just how early Chazelle is in his career as a director, the character sections are slightly less successful.
Let me be clear, I think that the movie is a remarkable cinematic achievement on a ton of different levels. And it has moments of cosmic visual grandeur that rival Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Armstrong, who shunned excessive personal credit and really any sort of publicity at all, was always an inherently unknowable man. Maybe the most enigmatic and mysterious true American hero this country has ever produced. And First Man, as great and enthralling as it is, never convincingly solves the mystery of Armstrong. It presents theories and interesting psychological conjecture (namely the wounds left by the death of his baby daughter to cancer) about what made the astronaut tick, but I’m not certain they paint the full picture. Armstrong was a riddle and to try to demystify that riddle the way that Chazelle and writer Josh Singer have doesn’t always feel fully convincing. It’s a sketch portrait of a cipher.
Still, First Man couldn’t arrive at a better time. It’s a stirring reminder of a more high-minded era in our nation’s history when we led the world by the boldness of our ambition. Or, in the words of John F. Kennedy which are quoted in the film, doing things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. It’s amazing Armstrong’s mission ever got as far as it did in the first place, especially when you lay your eyes on the cramped interiors of NASA’s rattling rocket ships loaded with analog dials and minute computing power. Armstrong and his fellow astronauts were high-test guinea pigs. Chazelle captures with eerie adrenaline and dread just how dangerous these death-defying missions were. But then, after these space craft pierce the atmosphere and a quiet stillness takes over, the act of space exploration takes on an almost transcendental sense of grace. It’s amazing to witness how thin the line is between claustrophobic chaos and expansive serenity.
Chazelle’s La La Land leading man, Ryan Gosling, plays Armstrong as a sort of buttoned-down, bottled-up early ‘60s brainiac square. He’s a wizard of cool control and clear-headedness who’s at home in the cockpit of a test plane or a rocket, but quiet and withholding with his wife (an excellent Claire Foy) and children. Especially after the death of his daughter Karen. The Gemini program, followed by the Apollo missions, seem to be an escape for him – a way to run away from the world. He’s more at peace in space than he ever seems to be on terra firma. Armstrong’s team of astronaut pals and colleagues (which include Jason Clarke, Patrick Fugit, and Corey Stoll, with Kyle Chandler back at Mission Control) can’t seem to reach him – and neither can his wife.
Where the film really comes alive, though, is when it leaves the ground and soars into the heavens with all of its terror, beauty, unpredictability, and majesty. You’ve never seen a movie that captures space flight with this degree of authenticity. It’s literally out of this world. As he makes the seemingly impossible possible, Gosling’s Armstrong is a man obsessed with pushing the boundaries of what mankind is capable of with stoicism and nary a degree of ego. And Gosling lets you see past his fantastic performance into the character’s humanity and humility — into his soul. Here’s hoping these two keep working together for years to come.
There are literally dozens of moments in First Man that I’ll be replaying in my head and thinking about for a while (I can’t wait to see it again), like the violent, anxiety-inducing opening sequence when Armstrong manning an X-15 tries over and over again to rip through the Earth’s atmosphere, or when he makes those fateful first steps on the lunar surface in the summer of 1969 and finds a brief respite of absolute quietude. I suspect that some will find the film’s closing moments to be a bit too downbeat, too unresolved and untriumphant with respect to the triumph that came before it. It feels like the coda of a ‘70s New Hollywood film in a way. But make no mistake, Chazelle and Gosling have achieved something remarkable with First Man, even if that first man is the last man we feel we truly know. A-