In Philip Kaufman’s 1983 spaceflight epic The Right Stuff, the sound barrier–breaking Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) mocks the comparative passivity and confinement of the astronauts being recruited for NASA’s budding space program: “Anybody that goes up in that damn thing is going to be Spam in a can.” Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a tightly focused portrait of Neil Armstrong based on James R. Hansen’s biography of the pioneering moonwalker, spends the entirety of its two hours and 20 minutes vigorously refuting the claim that the first men to slip the surly bonds of Earth were little more than sentient lunchmeat. The almost sickeningly intense opening sequence locks us in a cockpit with Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) as he barely manages to land a rocket-powered X-15 aircraft that has accidentally bounced off the atmosphere and flown, Icarus-like, too close to the planet’s outermost edge.
The exhilarating-yet-queasy sensation imparted by that first scene—a feeling roughly analogous to that experienced on the fairground attraction known as the Gravitron—will return at intervals throughout First Man. After Armstrong is recruited for the space program, he volunteers to be the first to test out an elaborate gimbal mechanism designed to recreate the multidirectional motion of gravity-free flight. Though his first spin in the contraption results in him passing out, Neil has barely regained consciousness before saying, “Let’s go again.” “Can we not?” the dazed audience can be excused for thinking, but go again we do, with Chazelle’s camera taking us on a mercilessly vertiginous ride.
As played by an unusually tamped-down Gosling, Armstrong is a brave man, but his courage manifests not as cowboyish swagger but as a borderline obsessive fixation on achieving the impossible. “I see the moon and the moon sees me,” he croons in a lullaby to his 2-year-old daughter in an early scene. Later, dancing in the kitchen with his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), he puts on a Space Age easy-listening piece—all swelling theremins and harmonizing choirs—titled “Lunar Rhapsody.” And when tragedy strikes some of his fellow astronauts-in-training—in 1967, three of NASA’s top astronauts died when the Apollo 1 command module caught fire during a launch rehearsal—Neil leaves the wake early to look up into the sky at the maddeningly inaccessible rock he is now more determined than ever to reach.
Horrific as it is, the Apollo 1 incident isn’t even the primary personal loss driving Neil’s lunar obsession. His baby daughter dies not long after he’s finished singing that lullaby, the victim of an inoperable brain tumor. His two remaining sons need him more than ever, but Neil, an emotionally avoidant man’s man in the classic midcentury mode, buries himself in his work at NASA and leaves the job of keeping the family together to his bereft, increasingly furious wife. Unlike many of the countless wives in movies on whom such labor has been foisted, Janet sees exactly what’s going on and calls her husband on it. When the Apollo 11 is finally set to take a crew to the moon in 1969, she insists that he be the one to sit down with their boys and tell them there’s a chance he won’t come back. He complies but imparts the scary news with the cool invulnerability of a general at a staff meeting: “We have every confidence in this mission.”
First Man’s script was adapted from Hansen’s biography by Josh Singer, who also had a hand in the screenplays of both Spotlight and The Post. Those talky, well-populated films felt embedded in their historical moment in a way the much more intimate and sparsely written First Man doesn’t. Though it takes place in between 1961 and 1969, the social upheaval of those years is almost invisible from the screen. Early on, we see a scrap of President John F. Kennedy’s televised speech promising a moon landing in the next decade. Much later, as the Apollo 11 mission is set to begin, there’s an awkwardly wedged-in montage—similar, in fact, to one in the middle of The Post—that juxtaposes Gil Scott-Heron’s proto-rap “Whitey on the Moon” with clips of dissenters, including Kurt Vonnegut, objecting to the cost of the space program. What this brief glimpse of the outside world was meant to add to the film is unclear: Do Vonnegut and Scott-Heron have a point or not? What would Neil have to say about their arguments against space exploration? In a movie that’s usually so locked in to its hero’s point of view—never has a space epic featured this many tight close-ups—it feels strange for the camera to suddenly pull out to reveal a larger social landscape, then zoom back in again without our understanding why.
In the movie’s most frustrating piece of good casting, Corey Stoll plays Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon and the one who, in the nearly 50 years since the landing, has become the public face most associated with this historic event. From the few scenes we get with him, it’s clear Buzz is Neil’s characterological opposite: a cutup, a blunt talker, a bit of a hothead. But Gosling and Stoll never get a chance to explore the implied friction between their characters. In fact, except for the fraught but loving relationship between Janet and Neil (impeccably acted on both sides), First Man doesn’t display a lot of interest in Neil’s social world. Chazelle, like his hero, sometimes seems to be just biding time until he can get back into one of those claustrophobic space modules and feel gravity slipping away.
Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Pablo Schreiber, and Shea Whigham all play colleagues of Armstrong’s at NASA, but (except for in some brief scenes with Clarke) they seldom emerge into clear relief as characters. It’s in the training and spaceflight scenes—especially near the end, when Armstrong and Aldrin finally break through the atmosphere and go on that already well-documented but nonetheless thrilling round trip to the lunar surface—that First Man really, well, takes off. Chazelle—whose last two films were the jaggedly percussive drama Whiplash and the swooning musical La La Land—is a director who specializes in sensation and intensity. His achievement in the flight scenes, aided by cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s handheld camera and Ai-Ling Lee’s sound design, is to place the viewer right in the cockpit with the astronauts, hammered by noise, light, motion, and G-force, but still tasked with making complex calculations and split-second decisions.*
The flight scenes are so stressful and sensorially overwhelming that when Neil’s boot finally hits the moon’s surface—the sand, he tells mission control, is much finer than he’d imagined, almost like powder—the total silence on the soundtrack comes as a welcome respite. After all the strain and strife it’s taken to get there, the moon’s featureless expanse is both a relief and, in some hard-to-define way, a letdown. But the gold tint of the faceplates on the astronauts’ helmets renders this moment, too, emotionally inscrutable—when Neil finally speaks the line heard around the world, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Gosling’s face is obscured. It’s an appropriate choice for a movie that’s as fascinated by the remote inner landscape of its hero as he is by the unexplored surface of the moon.
Correction, Oct. 12, 2018: This article originally misidentified Mary Ellis as the film’s sound designer. It was Ai-Ling Lee.