Director Damian Chazelle of “Whiplash” 2014 and “ La La Land” 2016 has another winner in this year’s “First Man”. Emotionally satisfying, if a bit long, this retrospective of the NASA ‘s space program highlights Neil Armstrong’s path to becoming the first man to walk on the moon’s powdery surface.
The film begins with Ryan Gosling as Armstrong bouncing off the atmosphere and through monstrous sound and tremendous vibrations fighting the space capsule and returning to Earth. He is an engineer who knows how to get home. Home plays a big part of this film. Claire Foy, of Queen Victoria fame, plays Neil’s wife, Jan. They lose a toddler daughter to brain cancer, and we grieve with them. They are a couple that use words sparingly. They dance; they touch; they stare into each other’s eyes, and they understand and are committed to their individual goals, be it supportive wife or space adventurer. The early nineteen sixties it is!
The screenplay written by Josh Singer is based on James Hansen’s biography of Armstrong. Hanson is a retired history professor and taught at Auburn University in Alabama. Hanson helped produce the film of America’s most famous astronaut. We hear Neil say little. When asked by a Gemini interviewing-committee-member if the recent death of his daughter would affect his performance, he replied that “ it would be unreasonable to think it would not have some effect.” Later, and not very surprisingly, we see him place his daughter’s bracelet on the moon. Why it doesn’t float away is unclear.
The lunar topography is what we have come to expect, but Armstrong’s thoughtful comment about how its vantage point changes your perspective is well-taken. There is a reverence for creation that I like. Competition with the Russians and the politics of NASA spending seem almost secondary to the thirst to know more about our world.
There are some good cinematic shots of wet shadows on the floor in NASA garage facilities, as well as moon shots. The sound editing is relentless in relaying every creak and groan and brain-shaking vibration. We experience becoming one with the machine. It is not pleasant. When floating quiet does come, we are relieved.
The back and forth rhythm between the familial and the astronautical is well-paced. When Jan is cut off from hearing her husband’s and the station’s chatter, she balks. She demands to be privy in present time. “ Don’t give me that this is protocal” , she seems to be saying. “ Protocol is for making people think you have things under control.” Neil’s hatch opening, his tethered breathing, his boot imprint, and his panoramic reflections are more respectful than euphoric. We remember neighbor’s thumbprint cookies and his small son’s questions, and his wife’s laugh. The film ends with Neil in quarantine and Jan sitting outside the glass partition. She waits for him to initiate. Non-verbally, he does. We feel he has reached his destination.
This is a film championing, as Walter Cronkite called them, “sailors of the sky”. Somber in sacrifice and majestic in intent, NASA seems to be asking us not to push “ the abort” button on space exploration.