Dir. Damien Chazelle. Starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke
It’s a Damien Chazelle movie: the answer is in Justin Hurwitz’s score. Chazelle and Hurwitz are, at this point, tied to the hip, and perhaps in thirty years they’ll even be remembered as closely (if not as fondly) as Spielberg and Williams or Fellini and Rota. Chazelle has made a movie without jazz, thank God, for the first time, but music is still as essential to that movie as it was in the rest of his nascent oeuvre. Compare this score to those from the nearest antecedents of First Man, The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. Bill Conti used synthesizers and brass, riffing off of Sousa or the Great American Songbook often as not. James Horner loves his solo trumpet and concussive use of percussion; Apollo 13 is like a test run for his work on Titanic, which informs disaster with a similar set of tools. Hurwitz’s most memorable pieces of music in First Man use the harp, acoustic guitar, and theremin. I don’t love the use of the latter—the connotations of its previous uses in sci-fi movies makes it a little cute—but it’s an enormous shift in focus. Previous movies about the American space program were interested in the glory or the excitement of spaceflight; even when The Right Stuff punched holes in the astronaut image or when Apollo 13 made spaceflight terrifying, they were still about pulse-racing drama. First Man largely eschews that quality, even though certain scenes (the ones set in space, mostly) deliver in bunches. But it’s not about thrills here, which a quick glance at Rotten Tomatoes proves has disappointed critics and audiences alike. It’s about Neil Armstrong (Gosling). First Man is a biopic which goes in quite the opposite direction from so many of its peers in its refusal to engage in “What did s/he do to the World?” There is a very narrow world where a biopic can gaze at the world outside without ever losing sight of its protagonist. Milk did it. The Aviator did it. Reds did it for a while before the movie got lost in eastern Europe. Now First Man has done it, and may it age as well as its peers.
Take the Apollo 11 landing itself, which is about as impossible an event to meaningfully depict as anything else you could want to put in a movie. Leave out the jokers who doubt that it happened, and the rest of us know that this is a sublime, maybe even unique, moment in human history. Say what you will about Columbus sailing to North America from Spain, but it’s not like they’d just invented boats sixty-five years earlier. Perhaps for the technically inclined, the fact that the lunar module landed on the Moon’s surface is what’s special. For those who believe in the nobility of the human spirit, there’s something magical about humans walking on an inhuman planet. Chazelle sidesteps that question, and rightly, because the first landing is so singular. He makes it a story of what Armstrong experiences and translates it that way as he has translated previously thrilling experiences. When the Gemini 8 mission loses its mind, we frequently get cuts outside the capsule if for no other reason than to get a sense of how enormous the danger is for Armstrong and Dave Scott (Benjamin Abbott), the sheer terrifying fact that they are out of control three hundred kilometers from terra firma. But we are not too often removed from the LM in that scene; much more often we see Armstrong’s eyes, Aldrin’s (Corey Stoll) face, the landscape of the Moon as they must be able to see it from the small windows. There’s one exceptional shot that cuts into this austere, Armstrong-focused mission, and that’s one which shows the magnificent desolation of our satellite. It’s a preview to what’s upcoming for this little tinfoil spaceship, piloted by its serious, even dour, commander.
And when we get the infamous program alarms that rang out during the descent of the Eagle, we hear their names but never get more than Charlie Duke’s voice on the other end, telling them they are still go. Apollo 13 would have cut back to Mission Control, to the back rooms, to figure out what was wrong. First Man knows that Mission Control is not what its story is about, and so the red glare of the lights fill Armstrong’s face and that’s all.
Chazelle begins the Neil Armstrong Story with the two poles of his life. The more important (and second to be introduced) is Armstrong’s daughter, Karen, who is suffering from severe health troubles; she will die of pneumonia before her third birthday. We see the gentleness in him as a parent. He holds her head still over a bowl as she vomits, holds her and bounces her, smiles warmly at her in a moment of stillness. In brief, we can tell that he loves her, and we can tell that her death is crushing for him. Chazelle only needs three or four minutes to do it, a handful of short scenes that add up to more than the sum of their minutes. What’s interesting is that the movie decides to make the taciturn Armstrong into a magnet for death, which laminates his grief over and over again. He makes amicable strides with Elliot See (Patrick Fugit); See’s plane crashes into a building not long after. More time is given to Ed White (Clarke), who is one of the casualties in NASA’s worst disaster until Challenger, and whose death elicits an emotion that we almost never see on Gosling’s face in this movie: anger. Armstrong doesn’t say anything, but his face as he watches the news in his D.C. hotel room makes it clear how angry he is that Ed White died during the plugs-out test. When Armstrong leaves a little memento of Karen in a lunar crater and weeps silently, it’s a moment that works. I doubt very much it happened in real life, but, as always, if you want history read a book. Going to the Moon is not a substitute for his daughter’s life, or See’s, or White’s. But no person can separate all of the fields of his or her life from all the others, and the movie chooses to find unification in a spare moment that probably never happened.
The other pole of his life is inextricable from his grief, and that’s Armstrong’s real-life plot armor. It’s not actually plot armor. Part of it is luck in terms of mission assignments. The movie hypothesizes that Grissom probably would have gotten the Moon landing if he’d lived, and never mentions a litany of people who would have likely been given command of Apollo 11 if they’d been willing (Frank Borman, Jim McDivitt) or able (Alan Shepard); Armstrong happens to be out of the Apollo 1 capsule in First Man, and that’s enough. But part of it is also, humorously enough, the right stuff. Where other pilots cannot cut it or might have died, Armstrong manages to pull through. (First Man even takes notes from Tom Wolfe, I’d say. When Buzz Aldrin, who always seems to get short shrift in stories about Armstrong for reasons, hypothesizes about what mistakes See and Charlie Bassett might have made, Armstrong tells him to shut up. The movie knows it’s because Aldrin is bad-mouthing men whose bodies are barely cold; we know it’s because when you talk about the right stuff, you do it sotto voce.) The movie begins with an X-15 flight that very nearly goes wrong when Armstrong can’t begin the reentry process, although he manages to lower himself back into the atmosphere and land the rocket. (It’s also Chazelle’s first go-round with the magic of “stressing out the audience with close-ups of the instrument panel.”) He gets Gemini 8 out of its spin seconds before he might have blacked out. He ejects a split-second before the last split-second from the clumsy equivalent of the LM they use on Earth. Other people, like Elliot See, get into these kinds of situations, but Armstrong is the one who lives, and the one who takes those near-death experiences to the surface of the Moon itself. When they nearly run out of fuel on their descent, Armstrong is steely-eyed but never panicky; he’s seen worse.
So far, First Man is pretty solidly the apex of Damien Chazelle’s career. Gosling gives him the best performance he’s ever had from an actor, freed from the buff histrionics of J.K. Simmons in Whiplash or the cutesy melodrama of whatever it was Gosling and Emma Stone were doing in La La Land. Gosling plays a person who you have to read, which is to say a real person, someone who maintains an even keel except in moments of the greatest provocation. He speaks for all of us who have ever gone off by ourselves when he says to Clarke’s White, If I wanted to talk to you about how I feel, I would have talked to you about how I feel. It makes his tears meaningful because they are rare and scarce. As much as I think other pairings with Chazelle, such as the sound team’s work with him or Justin Hurwitz’s music, might last longer, I rather hope Gosling and Chazelle split after this. I don’t see how it would get much better.