In First Man, Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) compresses seven years in the astronaut Neil Armstrong’s life, from testing the hypersonic aircraft X-15 to the actual moment of setting foot on the lunar dust.
It’s tremendously exciting filmmaking. Here, Chazelle is more of a disciple of Steven Soderbergh than Ron Howard. Rather than taking in the vastness of space, Chazelle’s focus narrows to the view through a space-capsule window, like the visor in a knight’s helmet. He makes it all frightening: the glow of hot metal, the rows of toggle switches, the seams of the capsule that look thin enough to split. Chazelle recreates the excitement of breaching the atmosphere after a bone-shaking ride and finally emerging into stillness. It’s all caught with little gestures: the snatching of a floating pencil in zero gravity, or the slap of a bare hand against the window, as a terrific spin almost whirls the Gemini capsule into oblivion.
The casting of Ryan Gosling as Armstrong turns out to be inspired. Here his minimalism is used perfectly to portray a man who could certainly be remote. The well-worn key Chazelle uses to open Armstrong is perhaps too easy—the idea that the astronaut had an impregnable hurt locker in which he keeps the sorrow of the death of his baby daughter. Claire Foy, as Armstrong’s wife Janet, indicates that their marriage could also be a rocky ride. Most married men wouldn’t go to the Moon without their wife’s blessing, and Janet has grounds for her simmering anger as her husband walls himself off.
Foy takes what’s usually the dullest kind of role—the wife who waits—and makes this Janet strong and fascinating. Her share of bravery is depicted against evocative recreations of suburban ’60s America, with an attention to detail usually reserved only for Ang Lee films.
What’s at stake may be obvious, but Chazelle makes it subtle, with the figures at Mission Control (including Kyle Chandler’s excellent Deke Slayton) poring over the recently declassified statements that were meant to be read to the public if the first Moon voyagers were killed or stranded. There was a protocol: “The president will first call the widows-to-be. . . .” That chilling phrase offers a fresh imagining of what could have been.
First Man isn’t a session of hero worship, but it does help one understand the otherness of Neil Armstrong that still exemplifies bravery.
‘First Man’ opens Oct. 12 in wide release.