The earliest days of U.S. space exploration is one of the most fascinating chapters of human history, a determined effort of scientists with a limited timetable achieving landmark breakthroughs previously thought unimaginable as the world placed the closest scrutiny upon them. This famously culminated in the Apollo 11 moon landing, with Neil Armstrong acting as the first human ambassador to a heavenly body. It therefore makes a certain amount of sense that Armstrong would be a focal point for NASA historians and those who would attempt to fictionalize the events of the Gemini and Apollo programs, so a film like First Man was always inevitable and, quite frankly, overdue if you don’t count more holistic portrayals. And yet director Damien Chazelle and writer Josh Singer don’t really seem to have a grasp on what makes Armstrong such a fascinating figure in the space race, and this leaves a hole where the heart of the film should be.
Now, it’s clear that Chazelle has a vision of how he views early efforts to touch the stars, and when he opts to devote himself to crafting moments of visceral intensity, First Man absolutely shines. To Chazelle’s mind, Gemini and Apollo were a series of terrifying, rickety, and undeniably often fatal experiments, placing human beings in fragile circumstances with the most basic of equipment keeping them from dying in the vacuum of space, separated from the infinite beyond by only a thin layer of dented and warped metal shielding. Dwelling in tight close-ups that shake violently with the external force of rocket engines, moments of exploration are defined not by the sights and splendors of a world beyond the terrestrial, but are instead claustrophobic episodes of survival and uncertainty. Despite a historically literate understanding of those who survive these experiments, Chazelle manages to make every test, waiting period, and eventually triumphant flight feel like a potential death trap.
This is reflected in the moments when we return to Earth to spend time with Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy), who has little to do but wait for her husband’s returns, though those are perpetually in question. Foy’s performance walks a difficult line between supportive spouse and necessarily outside observer, cleaning up the wreckage of the space program’s casualties by acting as an empathetic support for those wives and friends left behind. First Man wants you to remember that space exploration was a constant battle of sacrifice and public doubt, only seen as worth the monetary and vital cost once the moon landing became etched into history.
So with that strong of a thesis on the terror of the space program, why does First Man feel so cold, so distant from emotional resonance? Paradoxically, it’s the first man himself that causes the thematic weight of the film to unravel. It’s not that Ryan Gosling gives a poor performance as Neil Armstrong – far from it, he delivers an appropriately reserved, contemplative representation of the astronaut – but his arc feels so shoehorned into this story of human accomplishment that it actually verges on offensive. Chazelle’s take on Armstrong is that he was fundamentally changed by the death of his toddler daughter to the point of burying himself into his work, which is not only a misrepresentation the job-loving flight geek Armstrong was in reality, but it acts as a contrived mechanism to make the tragic losses of his coworkers personal rather than communal. This is exemplified through the underdeveloped personas of Edward Higgins White (Jason Clarke), Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), and numerous other astronauts of historic significance, who are all on-screen long enough for you to get an idea of who they are but not long enough to develop dimension as actual witnesses and participants in the events that unfold. Neil Armstrong is a remarkable figure precisely because he is such an unremarkable person whose focus and humility enabled him to achieve greatness in his field, but First Man focuses on Armstrong with a prophetic air of destiny that disserves the lives of the men it glorifies through their deaths.
This, of course, climaxes with the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon, but it feels oddly truncated to make room for a comically absurd conclusion to Armstrong’s arc that misses the moon for the moon rocks. Chazelle willfully ignores any sense of universal accomplishment for the sake of focusing on Armstrong, which doesn’t so much feel intimate as restrictive. First Man isn’t a bad film in the sense that it’s poorly made; it’s actually a huge accomplishment in conveying the terrors of extraterrestrial flight. But it’s very clear that this needed to be a film about humanistic accomplishment, and instead First Man puts all the onus on one man whose most defining characteristic was that he distanced himself from the idea he was of any particular importance. The result is a film that replaces humanity with a cold nothingness, and unfortunately nothing fills that vacuum.