In examining Damien Chazelle’s filmography, the young director has never made the same film twice. There was his debut, the indie verité love-lost-and-found story Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. He then see-sawed from jazz conservatory drama Whiplash, essentially a monster movie, to La La Land, which chronicled the fraught journey of Hollywood dreamers in the form of a classical Hollywood musical. So what comes next? A space flick naturally—First Man, a biopic of Neil Armstrong, starring Ryan Gosling.
There’s a famous line in First Man that unlocks the through-line of Chazelle’s work. It comes from the speech that President John F. Kennedy gave about the space program, presented in archival footage in the film. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Therein lies the conflict that fascinates and confounds Chazelle, who explores this idea in his work again and again—the people who do things because they are hard.
First Man is adapted from James R. Hansen’s Neil Armstrong biography, the only official one with which Armstrong participated. Written by Josh Singer, the film focuses on Neil the person and how that makes him Neil the astronaut. The film is far more Tree of Life than Apollo 13, and there are even shades of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—dwelling on the existential and philosophical nature of space flight, eyes gazing upward at the galaxies behind the glass domes of space helmets.
The film looks and feels like no other film that Chazelle has made. There are no crisply executed flowing camera movements. Rather, he and cinematographer Linus Sandgren (who won an Oscar for La La Land) opt for a shaggy, handheld style that operates in close-up range. We’re placed inside every jet, rocket, and spaceship that Armstrong enters, given a subjective view of his experience inside the shuddering metal cockpits as rattling, rusty gauges guide him back down to earth. This recreation of his flights makes the improbability, the impossibility of space flight in the 1960s all the more tangible for us. How on earth did humans make it to the moon in those claptraps, calculating trajectories by hand while trying not to vomit or pass out? Sheer will, apparently.
While this is Chazelle as we’ve never seen him, Gosling also brings a new range to his signature stoicism. As Armstrong, he is self-effacing and serious, a man of very few words, but meaningful ones. He doesn’t communicate much, repressing his grief over the tragic loss of his young daughter, Karen, and the deaths of his close friends and colleagues in crashes and accidents as NASA hurtles toward moon flight in a race with the Soviets. He is taciturn, dedicated and almost utterly humorless, as he treats the quest with the utmost level of respect for the potential consequences. It’s an approach that leads to personality clashes with fellow astronaut, charmer Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll).
Claire Foy co-stars as Armstrong’s wife, Janet, another stoic character who matches her husband’s tenor, save for the few times she breaks, urging him to open up to her, his friends, his sons. But it almost seems that for Armstrong to open up would cause him to crack, something he can’t risk for this incredible journey. His repression may be the key to his cool under pressure.
At a hefty two-and-a-half hours, First Man does test the audience’s patience (and stomachs—in IMAX, the handheld close-ups and shaking spaceships can inspire a touch of motion-sickness). While the style is anything but formulaic, the approach itself to depicting Armstrong’s flights is methodical. Here he is buckling in, here is the lift-off, here are the gauges that rattle and whine and the never-ending shaking inside the cockpit. The moment they step onto the moon is a sweet, quiet, calming relief, as the whole screen opens up into a huge, IMAX-format frame, widening to take in all of the silent moonscape.
In making the story intimate, closely-focused, and human-oriented, Chazelle reminds us in First Man just what an amazing accomplishment walking on the moon was. His films are about chasing impossible dreams, the one in a million chances, the long, hard journeys and nearly life-ruining sacrifices these dreams require. “Is it worth it?” you wonder, a question that’s posed literally in First Man, as Armstrong meets with Senators at the White House who grill him about the taxpayer expense, right before he receives a phone call about a devastating, fatal accident. Chazelle always pushes this question to its limits, but in his work, dreams and the pursuit of greatness are always worth fighting for.