First Man, rated PG-13
Starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Christopher Abbott, Ciaran Hinds, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas
Austin Family Critical Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Austin Family Family-Friendly Rating: 4 of 5 stars
After the Oscar-winning two-punch of Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016), director Damien Chazelle brings us something entirely new with his latest film, the absolutely astonishing, gripping and experiential First Man. The picture is not only the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), the first man to walk on the moon, but also of NASA’s Apollo space missions leading up to the historic moon landing in 1969.
Chazelle takes a personal, evocative approach to the material – this film is, in every sense of the word, a first person movie. In the early missions, we rarely see a wide shot of the rocket blasting off into the sky – we’re cramped inside the small cockpit alongside Armstrong and his fellow astronauts. At times, First Man goes into downright abstraction in its visual depiction of what being inside that small spacecraft must be like – this isn’t a movie out to show you space travel from the perspective of outer space, but instead from the perspective of those men who first experienced it.
As a character, Armstrong is fascinating. Gosling plays him as someone who bottles up his inner sorrow (much of which stems from his daughter’s death early in the film). In the last third of First Man, as many of his fellow astronauts die as a result of failed missions, he becomes increasingly laser-focused on his own mission. When he’s lifted up to the Apollo 11 spacecraft alongside Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Mike Collins (Lukas Haas), he’s the only one not looking out of the elevator at the rocket. He just stares straight ahead.
When he finally walks onto the moon’s surface, his helmet covers his entire face – a perfect metaphor for his masked emotions. And then finally, when he lifts up his visor, he reveals himself to us and finds a way to say goodbye to his daughter. It’s a profoundly effective moment that gives an even greater, personal significance to such a historic feat of mankind.
Chazelle is also deeply interested in the toll the space missions take on the astronauts and their families. A heartening amount of screen time is devoted to the depiction of 1960s suburban family life within this insular NASA community. There’s a beautiful scene in which Armstrong and Ed White (Jason Clarke) take a nighttime walk together. We see the inability of both men, particularly Armstrong, to articulate or express their grief, fear and sadness. The camerawork in these domestic scenes (shot mostly on 16mm) is reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), in which natural beauty is found in a small suburb just beneath the great expanse of the universe.
The core of the movie comes in a powerful scene in which Armstrong’s wife, Janet (Claire Foy), makes him face his children and explain he may not come home from his mission to the moon. The closed-off Armstrong has mastered his stoicism to the point where he cuts off his family from everything, and it’s Janet who forces him to look at his family and address the risk and danger of what he does.
Which brings me to the final shot of the film, which has stayed with me for some time. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins are kept in quarantine at NASA shortly after their return to Earth as a precaution, during which time Janet visits her husband. They stare at each other through protective glass, and then slowly press their hands against one another’s. Here is a man who is always going to be a little distant from his family, separated behind a glass wall – he’s literally been to a place, at this point, that his family will never experience. But he’s back, and within his own capabilities, he’s going to be there for them.
The cast assembled here – including Kyle Chandler, Patrick Fugit, Shea Whigham and Ciaran Hinds – is as strong as any ensemble this year, and Gosling and Foy are incredibly compelling in the leads. I continue to be in awe of Chazelle’s work as a filmmaker – he challenges himself with each new project, and has yet to make anything resembling the same film twice. First Man deserved to be a blockbuster, but lesser films have overshadowed the film at the box office. My hope is that more folks will see this as awards season begins, where First Man will hopefully receive the recognition it deserves as one of the year’s best films.
This film is rated PG-13 for some intense flight sequences, including a fatal explosion, and one expletive. The historical importance of this film alone makes it appropriate for those over the age of 10 – this strikes me as a picture that will be shown in schools in the coming years.
Jack Kyser is a graduate of Austin High School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.