First Man is an impressionistic portrait of the Neil Armstrong's personal journey that culminated with the Apollo 11 moon landing. Played with a stoic confidence by Ryan Gosling, First Man depicts an obsolete style of heroism. Coming off the success of Whiplash and La La Land, director Damien Chazelle now has an historical epic in his catalog.
Phillip Kaufman's 1983 film on the Mercury Program The Right Stuff was a big influence. Chazelle also took from the space action perfection of Apollo 13, but also went much further than those two movies. The script wisely avoids the historical baggage of the 1960s we've seen a million times and boils the story of Armstrong down the personal journey of going to to the moon, leaving one's family, and coming to terms with loss.
There's a grim determination that sustains First Man. As one who was not alive during the Apollo Missions, the moonshots appear as inevitable. The film brings home how dangerous these missions were, they were risky and even the technology seemed iffy at times. These machines were built by hand, one gets the sense they could fly apart at any moment. Even the training methods appear primitive, one gets the sense astronauts had little agency whatsoever. Their lives were controlled by NASA and everything was on a need to know basis. Death always loomed around the corner.
Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong is pivotal to the story, while she supports Neil in his travails, we understand her thankless task of holding the family together. The astronaut corps are often portrayed as close knit, but here one gets the sense their camaraderie was more professional than personal.
Chazelle uses lots of close ups and bracing sound to supreme effect. Once they arrive on the moon most of the shots from Armstrong's point of view. The moment when the Eagle actually lands comes as close as any movie to imitating the actual experience of landing on the moon, such a distant and desolate place.
As I watched could not help thinking that many now believe the moon missions are a fiction. The political crunch of now negates any sense of truth, justice, and decency. While the late 1960s were polarized, these days people pick their own heroes, the loudest, crudest voice in the room typically wins the day. An archaic type of heroism pervades over the film. First Man tells us anything worth doing will be long, arduous, and painful. Success results not in joy, but catharsis.