It’s rather infuriating to think that, at the time of his fourth feature-film release, director Damien Chazelle is only 33 years old. His critical breakthrough, Whiplash, remains one of the decade’s best, and his last feature, 2016’s La La Land, came, like, really close to winning Best Picture that year. Not to mention the guy co-wrote The Last Exorcism: Part II. This is all to say that examining Chazelle’s early career makes me feel like a total scrub.
On initial glance, First Man seems like a disastrously safe choice to follow-up La La Land. A Neil Armstrong biopic could be the kind of awards-thirsty prestige movie high on pedigree and low on ingenuity. Placed in the hands of Chazelle, however, First Man is a surprisingly harrowing portrait of a man who’s retreated (literally, in Armstrong’s case) from the world out of grief. Most impressively, it manages to make a monumental event in human evolution feel like one man’s personal struggle.
In the movie’s opening scene, we’re privy to an early test flight that requires Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) to exit the Earth’s atmosphere. Like the rest of the flight sequences in First Man, it’s a moment filled with intense peril and severe claustrophobia. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (shooting with a beautiful 16mm aesthetic that communicates the time period better than any set design could) clearly conveys how reckless an endeavor space travel must have seemed to those directly experiencing it. The spacecrafts here don’t share the sleek and hushed interiors of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris. Rather, close-ups of the equipment and ice-caked windows during missions consistently remind us that these ships are more or less scraps of metal thrown together with nuts and bolts, and the odds of them enduring the extremities of space are unclear.
Armstrong was obviously remarkable in his ability to remain level-headed in situations of extraordinary jeopardy. Ironically, the most challenging obstacles in Armstrong’s life were those of a much more mundane, albeit tragic, variety. Early scenes quickly establish the death of Neil and his wife Janet’s infant daughter to pneumonia. Armstrong allows himself a brief, solitary cry in his study and then barricades himself emotionally from his family despite Janet’s (an excellent Claire Foy) attempts to reach out.
First Man may be about America’s insanely ambitious quest to reach the moon, and the lives sacrificed in the process, but the primary focus is Armstrong’s battle with profound loss. If you are as embarrassingly out of touch with history as I am, you may be surprised to learn just how much failure and tragedy led to the moon landing. Venturing into space feels less like joyful exploration and more like heading into a war you’re unlikely to survive.
As Armstrong, Gosling employs his trademark minimalist acting style most recently seen in last year’s Blade Runner 2049. It’s a far cry from his charismatic turn in La La Land and a performance style that could feel frustrating paired with the wrong material. In this case, it’s thematically appropriate, as the character’s imminent mission and paternal grief have left him taciturn. It’s not the showy performance you’d expect from almost any other actor, and at times his impenetrable nature can feel frustrating yet nevertheless rings true.
At this point, we’ve come to expect Chazelle to end his films by completely eviscerating us emotionally. Whiplash did this with its breathtaking drum solo finale, and La La Land did the same with a swooning flash-forward montage of the happy future its protagonists abandoned. Chazelle doesn’t disappoint in this regard, as Armstrong’s mission and familial anguish converge during a stunning, soundless moon landing. In a story where the premise seems to cry for grand spectacle, it takes a filmmaker of rare skill to leave us astonished with a quiet bit of introspection.