At the dawn of humanity, the first men and women risked everything to step onto the savannah, straighten their backs, and look up to the stars. But it was worth it. The thing that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, our capacity for knowledge, allowed us to grow and consume and conquer. It also allowed us to dream of flight. That dream, to “slip the surly bonds of Earth,” became a reality when ambition met technological capability. Stories of NASA and its pioneers have been told effectively from many perspectives before, but perhaps never quite so intimately, as in First Man.
Director Damien Chazelle reunited with his La La Land star, Ryan Gosling, to bring us a closer examination of Neil Armstrong, the iconic Apollo mission commander and titular first human to step foot on the moon. And while that momentous moment is part of the story they tell, it is but one remarkable moment among many. From the film’s first moments, we are thrust forcefully into Armstrong’s perspective. Worth nearly the price of admission alone, it is a jarring and awe-inspiring start to an ambitious film.
Fragile are we who inhabit this tiny blue dot in the expansive darkness of the universe. We build machines to protect our fragile bodies, but as we are fallible, so are our machines. Chazelle’s film captures the vulnerability and claustrophobia of space exploration in its infancy. It’s the vulnerability that came from striving for the unknown — not just striving but racing — and fallibility had fatal consequences.
The film also emphasizes that we are vulnerable to the unchangeable forces of known fates. If you know the history, you can only brace yourself for moments you know will be inevitable. Knowing doesn’t make it easy to watch. The claustrophobic angles and perspectives that make First Man’s successful flight scenes so compelling and vital make the scenes of tragic failure so difficult to watch. It is so well done as to make us wonder, agape, as we once did watching the actual rockets take flight.
Claire Foy gives a remarkable performance as Janet Armstrong, one that must surely be destined for Academy recognition. She inhabits the role of someone who, despite being in a position of extreme vulnerability, steels herself time and again against whatever fate has planned. Though we can see her resolve slip when there’s no one around to see, when it comes to protecting her family from pain and the public eye, she is a paragon of strength.
Gosling as Armstrong is even keeled to the point of becoming flat. The performance is interesting, but as a character Armstrong only occasionally feels like someone you’d want to talk with over a beer. Mostly he’s tightly self-controlled, with a torrent of emotion locked behind those soft blue eyes.
What First Man does well is recognize that the space race wasn’t something that united the masses. It was expensive, and therefore controversial. Its detractors made the same arguments against it that people make today about all sorts of government programs — that the money would be better spent somewhere else. Where the arguments differ is that the space program was enacted in a hope to further human understanding of the universe, to be a boon for all humankind, to bring us into a new age of enlightenment, intellectual discovery and technological advancement.
First Man reminds us of what we once were, and what we can hope to be again: a nation of people who would sacrifice for the benefit of humanity. It shows scientists and those who would lead us to innovation as heroes, daring and risking their very lives to help us be something more. Not because it was easy but because it was hard.
Photo credit: Daniel McFadden/Universal Pictures