Obsession is a running theme in Damien Chazelle’s burgeoning filmmaking career. In 2014’s Whiplash, a student drummer’s relationship with his art takes a grim turn as he seeks to impress his abusive teacher. In 2016’s La La Land, a musician and an actress sacrifice their swooning romance at the altar of their careers. Now, Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, is far more accomplished than any of Chazelle’s past subjects. But he’s still an ideal hero for the director, and the U.S. space program the astronaut symbolized is a soaring monument to complete devotion. First Man is about Armstrong’s landmark achievement, but it’s just as much about a country’s grinding, maniacal fixation on getting him there.
It may be surprising that there’s never been a feature-length cinematic portrayal of Armstrong’s life before. Then again, it’s hard to make great drama about great success, and the Apollo 11 mission was an unqualified one. Whether they’re biopics like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff or fictional films like Gravity and The Martian, space movies often thrive on anxiety and failure. Almost 50 years ago, Armstrong made it to the moon, and Chazelle (working from a script by Spotlight’s Josh Singer) knows that his audience is well aware of that. Yet the director has still crafted a film that generates incredible tension from the lead-up to that triumphant moment.
Chazelle does that partly by how he uses the camera: So much of First Man is shot in aggressive, rattling close-ups, filling the frame with people’s faces and shuddering in and out of focus, even during rudimentary scenes of dialogue and exposition. The Kubrickian hallmark of space movies—majestic wide shots—is ignored (at least right until the film’s final sequence). From minute one, Chazelle wants things to feel tenuous and stressful; the Apollo program, after all, was no sure bet. It was, quite literally, a wild moonshot, invoked by President John F. Kennedy as something the country did not because it was easy, but precisely because it was hard.
The director also sows tension by trusting in his lead performer, Ryan Gosling, who plays Armstrong as a walking emblem of the Silent Generation. The film draws from the only authorized biography of Armstrong (written by James R. Hansen and published in 2005), but there’s still something intentionally unknowable about its subject, an Ohioan and a Korean War veteran with a degree in engineering who became a test pilot for nasa’s progenitor, NACA, in 1955.
Armstrong was, on paper, a model American, happily married to Janet (played with nervy, magnetic intensity by Claire Foy), and with three children. But his daughter, Karen, died at age 2 after being diagnosed with a malignant tumor, a tragedy that looms large over First Man and turns an already taciturn man further inward. As Armstrong moves up the ranks at NASA and becomes a part of the Apollo program, even his wife struggles to communicate with him. Gosling, who can certainly be a broad actor if he needs to be, is bottled up beyond compare here. Armstrong isn’t so much placid as he is dormant, his emotions churning so many miles below the surface that they barely register.
The work of getting to the moon is all-consuming, a relentless battering ram of failure, death, and stomach-wrenching piloting, visited upon a cadre of strong-chinned boys sporting crew cuts. The ensemble includes Corey Stoll as the loudmouthed Buzz Aldrin, Kyle Chandler as the NASA chief Deke Slayton, and Jason Clarke as the pioneer astronaut Ed White, who was the closest thing Armstrong had to a confidant. They’re all pummeled by the many missteps the Apollo team faced throughout the 1960s, while the American government sweated the repeated triumphs of the Soviet space program.
As Kennedy said, they’re doing this because it’s hard—but Chazelle wants the viewer to know exactly how hard it was. Some scenes, such as the re-creation of the Apollo 1 disaster, are genuinely harrowing. Others, like the dramatization of Armstrong’s first space mission on Gemini 8, are nearly unbearable to watch, thanks to Chazelle’s commitment to portraying every detail (Gemini 8 involved a lot of very rapid spinning). One launch sequence is shot entirely within the cockpit as Armstrong and another astronaut sit strapped within a clattering metal coffin. Part of me desperately wanted Chazelle to cut outside to the rocket and grant some relief from the extreme claustrophobia, but the camera always stayed with Armstrong.
Chazelle conjures that feeling of distress in service of First Man’s outstanding final sequence, the coup de grâce the audience knows is coming but nonetheless eagerly awaits. Shot with IMAX cameras, the scenes on the moon are breathtaking, and grant the visual serenity the director has long withheld. Though the end result of the Apollo 11 mission can’t really be shocking, Chazelle wants it to feel earned—an emotional pinnacle that’s barely within human comprehension, one that will keep Armstrong at arm’s length from everyone around him forever. It’s a glorious but sobering conclusion, and a fitting cap to Chazelle’s most mature and impressive effort yet.