‘First Man’ a muscular, grounded work of cinema
Charlie Kenney | Monday, October 29, 2018
“First Man” opens with turning gears, flickering lights, static radio and heavy breathing. The face of a man flashes in and out of frame. His countenance is akin to the feeling of the scene — confused, dynamic, cramped.
Suddenly, the commotion seems to sort itself out. The lights are on more than they are off. His heartbeat decreases. The scene begins to gain a sense of continuity, a discernible storyline. It becomes a scenario with certain stakes rather than an arbitrary cacophony of light and noise.
As it settles, we see Neil Armstrong, not in a glimmering space suit, not in a gargantuan space shuttle; but in a helmet reminiscent of a fishbowl and an aircraft fit to trade bullets in World War I. If one can determine anything from the scene, it’s that he is in no way on his way to the moon.
This opening scene, despite its seeming ambiguity, sets the tone for the rest of the film.
“First Man” is not a film about the glamour of the NASA program and Neil Armstrong’s romanticized odyssey to the moon. It’s a slow-moving film that documents the arduous, mathematical and, at times, deadly process to get someone on the moon.
The first scene isn’t pretty or simple. It’s a depiction of Armstrong testing the X-15 rocket plane to see how high it can elevate while still retaining necessary levels of oxygen. During this test, Armstrong inadvertently launches his plane out of the atmosphere, where he no longer has control, and almost ends up perishing because of it. The scene immediately grounds any ideas that audiences coming into the film might have had about the space program being a quick, straightforward response to the Soviets.
The entire film is merely a series of these tests that Armstrong or his colleagues partake in to ensure that a landing on the moon is feasible. It’s Armstrong nearly dying in an X-15 test run, his colleagues not coming back after a T-38 crash and the Apollo 1 crew being pressure-cooked in their cabin due to an electrical malfunction. “First Man” paints putting someone on the moon as a series of trials and errors in which Armstrong was one of the few men who managed to escape error.
This is not to say that “First Man” is simply using Armstrong as a vehicle through which director Damien Chazelle can talk about space flight. As the title of “First Man” suggests, it is a film that is intimately about Neil Armstrong himself, and how he traverses these various trials and errors.
After his flight to the moon, Neil Armstrong became a public figure notorious for avoiding the gaze of the public and of the media. And, in the film, through his soft-spoken, emotional, reserved portrayal of Armstrong, Ryan Gosling characterizes a man who no doubt would avoid the media if stardom ever came to him.
Gosling isn’t a macho, outspoken Armstrong who desperately wishes to go to the moon and stick it to the Soviets. He’s a man whose job happens to require him to go to the moon, who has a hard time telling his kids that he might not make it back and who struggles much more with the death of his daughter than he does with any dramatic change in elevation.
With this deep development of Armstrong and focus on the fickle nature of NASA programs, the film is an outward antonym of prior films on the subject. “Interstellar,” “Gravity,” “The Martian,” “Moon” and “Apollo 13” are all focused on the wonderment of space, the stakes of their missions and the trials that face its characters when they are in space. “First Man,” on the other hand, focuses on the here and the now — on human emotion and Earthly occurrences.
“First Man,” however, does not only differ from films in its respective space genre. It also is a film that is radically different from the rest of director Damien Chazelle’s filmography.
Chazelle’s previous three feature films, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” “Whiplash” and the briefly-Best-Picture-winning “La La Land,” all revolve around music — particularly that of now-Oscar-winner Justin Hurwitz. Whereas “First Man,” despite two phenomenal tracks from Hurwitz, is a gross departure from that trend.
This departure from film grounded in music and the subsequent success of “First Man” is perhaps Chazelle’s greatest accomplishment. He proves that he isn’t some 33-year-old whiz kid who happens to know how to film people singing and dancing. He knows how to work a camera in silence and understands how to structure a compelling plot when it isn’t dressed up with show tunes.
“First Man” is a film that brings a breath of fresh air to both to Chazelle’s filmography and films focused on the cosmos. It’s a film fit to bridge the gap between the blockbusters of the summer and those which will be soon vying for their sport at the award shows.