To take such a famous moment in history and try and turn it into a film that acts as both a reenactment, biography, character study, and thriller, is a feat reserved to only the boldest of filmmakers. Damien Chazelle, having come off of reviving the musical genre with La La Land (for which he won an Oscar), has decided to tell the story of Neil Armstrong and his landing on the moon.
First Man tells the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), and the seven years leading up to his 1969 landing on the moon. The story is told in little vignettes, with scenes not lasting more than one or two minutes. We have intermittent appearances from fellow rocket scientists and engineers, and a view into Armstrong’s home life with his wife Janet (Claire Foy).
Chazelle takes on his first real-life story, and he chooses to dive deep into research to show the story as accurate as possible; every little detail is composed with a historical background, up to the stubble that astronauts had in the Apollo 11 mission after spending a few days in space (naturally shaving would have been impossible).
By having each scene be short, Chazelle is able to move quickly and not lose his audience’s attention. We never fully get to dive into how NASA broke through the specific problems it faced, instead we’re simply shown the before and aftermaths. The film essentially acts like a retelling of history for those who didn’t know all the work and loss that went into putting a man on the moon. By keeping a steady rhythm, Chazelle is able to dive into Armstrong’s own personal whims and losses. Gosling seems to have been type-cast into characters showing an intense repression of dark emotion, from his work in Blue Valentine, or The Ides of March, and one could even argue for La La Land. In First Man, Gosling delivers this honed type of performance, and it works for the film to perfection. Claire Foy is, thankfully, used as a proper counter-balance, prying Armstrong open while giving Janet a depth of her own; he British performer is proving to be a revelatory character actress (you’ll know her from Netflix’s The Crown).
First Man also shows us that the technology that put men on the moon was simply made up of dials and switches; a car’s dashboard today is infinitely more advanced. Chazelle puts his camera incredibly close to his characters so that we feel this fragility while inside the cockpit of the rocket. There are no wide-shots in tense moments to help us orient ourselves; we are kept as confused as the characters themselves. This close-camera tactic helps build tension and thrills when in present times we already know the full fates of the characters.
In the end, First Man is an enjoyable account on how NASA got a first man on the moon. The fast rhythm might let some down, who expected to see more of the inner workings of NASA, but we end up getting the inner workings of Armstrong the man. One thing is for certain, Chazelle has triumphed again, delivering us one of the most complete films of the year.