Damien Chazelle’s ‘First Man’ offers a frosty portrayal of a pilot’s historic journey to the moon

October 15, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 15, 2018

First Man, director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his acclaimed 2016 feature film La La Land, documents how Neil Armstrong progressed from being one of a handful of test pilots pushing past Earth’s atmosphere to the first individual to set foot on another celestial body.

The movie serves as a sequel of sorts to The Right Stuff, writer-director Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about America’s first astronauts. Indeed, Chazelle’s movie was adapted (by screenwriter Josh Singer, a co-author of The Post) from a 2005 authorized biography of the same title by Auburn University space historian James R. Hansen.

Kaufman began his movie with Chuck Yeager’s breaking the sound barrier in 1947 and ended roughly 15 years later as NASA approaches the end of Project Mercury, the first crewed American orbital missions. Chazelle and Singer start their story in the early 1960s, literally seconds before Armstrong embarks on a hazardous suborbital flight in an X-15 rocket plane and a few months before the civilian test pilot is selected for Gemini, NASA’s second set of crewed missions.

Despite their common subject matter, making extended comparisons between First Man and The Right Stuff would serve both movies poorly. Whereas Wolfe and Kaufman devoted its time a colorful ensemble of boundary-pushing men, First Man focuses on a brilliant but intensely private pilot-engineer while largely consigning his colleagues to the background.

Unfortunately, the emphasis on Armstrong’s interiority, perhaps inevitably, leads to First Man seeming almost as distant and emotionally closed off as the man himself appears to have been. The effect is rather like that of Colson Whitehead’s 2006 novel Apex Hides the Hurt; upon reading it last fall, I found that the main character, a consultant, “is so disengaged from the world around him that it’s hard to care what happens to him or to anyone else.”

First Man hints at the stakes of the space race: Scientific and technical ambitions, national pride, a chance to upstage the immensely successful Soviet space program, an excuse to ignore America’s domestic issues. (Author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is seen quipping on a news program that NASA’s budget would be better spent on a habitable New York.) The film, in depicting a disastrous Apollo test, aptly demonstrates that space exploration was a hazardous pursuit.

But First Man never gave me a clear sense of why Armstrong, who died in 2012 (and who cooperated with Hansen’s biography), thought going to the moon was a worthy endeavor. And I was surprised to find, in reading the publisher’s description of the source material, that Armstrong was “a pilot who cared more about flying to the moon than he did about walking on it.”

Chazelle seems resorts to fairly standard tactics in attempting to depict tense situations in space. Rockets fire, the camera shakes, the soundtrack roars, and we get closeups of faces or extremely tight shots of eyes. It’s effective enough, but it begins to feel repetitive after the opening X-15 flight and an eventful Gemini 8 mission. At that point, savvy viewers will know, the movie has not yet launched the Apollo moon-landing program, let alone commenced Armstrong’s incredibly tense descent in the lunar module. Yes, everything looks great, especially in the final sequences, but it also seems rather dull. Not only do we know how things wind up, we’re detached from the purported protagonist.

The movie is more successful at explaining, at least partially, why Armstrong was so distant from the people around him: The death of his second child, 2-year-old Karen, from a brain tumor. As played by Ryan Gosling, the pilot-cum-astronaut is shrouded in grief for Karen’s brief, pain-clouded life.

English actress Claire Foy, who plays Queen Elizabeth in the TV series The Crown and will be the heroine in the forthcoming The Girl in the Spider’s Web, shines as Neil’s wife, Janet, who longs for her spouse to connect emotionally with family and friends while facing the fact that Armstrong’s next flight might be his last. Jason Clarke and Olivia Hamilton also give solid performances as Ed and Pat White, the Armstrong’s NASA neighbors and closest (only?) friends.

Kyle Chandler is a steady presence as Deke Slayton, the Mercury astronaut who went on to command the American astronaut corps, and Corey Stoll (Ernest Hemingway from Midnight in Paris) provokes discomfort and amusement in turn as Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong’s Apollo 11 compatriot who tends to speak a bit too frankly. Lukas Haas (the young Amish boy in the 1985 thriller Witness, more recently seen in Inception and The Revenant) is given little to do as Mike Collins, the third Apollo 11 crew member, who stayed in lunar orbit as his companions made their historic landing.

First Man is wholly convincing as a visual spectacle; it’s easy to believe that the viewer is witnessing its historic events firsthand. The movie is bound to pick up a couple of Academy Awards this winter, if only for the impressive sound design. But because its lead is so withdrawn, First Man manages to make some of humanity’s most majestic accomplishments feel a bit dull.

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