(2018—Director: Damien Chazelle)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
“We need to fail. We need to fail down here so we don’t fail up there.” — Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) to Manned Spaceflight Center director Bob Gilruth (Ciarán Hinds) and Astronaut Office chief Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler)
Potential spoilers below
The bio found at the bottom of each of my reviews here on the Impacting Culture blog begins with how I “once aspired to become an astronaut”. I became passionate about the Space Race in the ‘60s and early ‘70s ever since that one fateful week in my sixth grade science class, when my teacher screened director Ron Howard’s 1995 space docudrama Apollo 13. While I have since deviated from that career path, my interest in the Space Race remains strong and has even spilled into my current occupation as a cinephile and film critic. Movies like the aforementioned Apollo 13, Interstellar, The Right Stuff, and Gravity perfectly fuse sports genre-esque stakes and catharsis with technological might and ample amounts of existential reflection.
As for dramatizing the historical race to Moon in particular, one should look no further than the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. It was this work of media and Tony Goldwyn’s aloof yet easygoing portrayal of astronaut Neil Armstrong—specifically in parts of episode 1 and all of episode 6—that dwelled in my mind as I approached First Man. Scripted by Spotlight writer Josh Singer and serving as director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his beloved 2016 musical La La Land, First Man seeks to deliver an intimate portrait of a job-focused hero whose name has gone down in history. The result is less an Apollo 13 or Right Stuff and more of an Interstellar—deeply-felt, yet frigid to the point of leaving one at a conflicted loss, both for the intriguing character motivations and for the astonishing technical crafts on display.
First Man tracks the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling, holding close to his work in Blade Runner 2049) from his days as a retired Navy pilot turned X-15 test pilot in late 1961 to the quarantine period following his (spoiler alert) successful command of the watershed Apollo 11 mission in mid-1969. Such is an overwhelming amount to cover in 141 minutes and First Man is mostly successful with regards to following Armstrong, the astronaut and father. Singer, Chazelle, and Gosling elect to portray Armstrong from the start in light of one key traumatic moment—the death of his two-year-old daughter Karen from a brain tumor in early 1962. “I think it would be unreasonable to assume that it wouldn’t have some effect,” says Armstrong when the subject is brought up months later during his astronaut recruitment interview with Manned Spaceflight Center director Bob Gilruth (Ciarán Hinds) and Astronaut Office chief Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler).
In all honesty, this story decision has left me feeling mixed. Perhaps that is due to how little I knew of this early tragedy in Armstrong’s time as a husband and father. This tragedy, furthermore, played no factor in Tony Goldwyn’s turn in From the Earth to the Moon, so I began asking myself whether either of these works handled this element appropriately. In First Man’s case, Karen’s sickness and eventual death gets an all-too-brisk treatment that, arguably to a contrived degree, hangs over not just Neil’s next eight years, but those of his dutiful and resilient wife Janet (Claire Foy).
Yes, the loss of such a young child and of any child bears a heavy weight on every parent. Cinematic works from Don’t Look Now, In America, Rabbit Hole, and even the aforementioned Gravity and Interstellar testify to that struggle. First Man argues that Karen’s death pushed Neil Armstrong to close himself off to everyone and everything except the mission at hand. Accordingly, the celestial wonder, assisted by Paul Lambert’s crisp visual effects and Justin Hurwitz’s delicate and heart-pumping score, gets isolated to just the breathtaking Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 sequences. (Both match, if not slightly surpass due to the score and updated visual effects, their dramatizations in From the Earth to the Moon.)
The astronaut camaraderie, and thus the overall human element, gets dampened as well. Promoting the balance between a sturdy family life and an astronaut career has good intentions. Yet all I have concluded from learning about this era is that this job turned most of its then-mostly men into terrible fathers, just as much—if not more—as any military service. Some die (Patrick Fugit as Elliot See and Jason Clarke as Ed White, for example), while the majority of others end up becoming distant to their loved ones to the point of divorce. (Unmentioned by the film, Neil and Janet’s marriage would sadly end in divorce in 1994.) First Man plays up the psychological weight of Karen’s death to a point beyond a grounding recommendation, despite Armstrong’s cool attitude during training and missions that is largely absent in this biographical drama. Equally flight ground-worthy is Corey Stoll’s take on Apollo 11 Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin as an irritating know-it-all. Such an attitude was only hinted at and far overshadowed by the aspiration to become the “first man” in Bryan Cranston’s more reasonable portrayal in From the Earth to the Moon. Perhaps these, along with the paltry time spent with Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot Mike Collins (Lukas Haas), only emphasize for some the ease of working with the mission-focused Neil Armstrong.
First Man is not as relentless and lasting as Whiplash or La La Land. As expected for his debut of directing another writer’s screenplay, Chazelle’s touch gives off that slight detachment of a director-for-hire. Still, First Man is far from the misfire Chazelle ought to watch out for at this stage in his career. Chazelle, Singer, Gosling, and co., much like Neil Armstrong, intend on continuing the success of their careers. First Man is merely one of the many small steps they have taken and will continue to take in their lifelong and individual endeavors.
(Parental Note: First Man has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA “for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language”. It has also been rated 12A by the BBFC for “infrequent strong language” and “moderate threat”, and rated A-III (Adults) by the Catholic News Service for containing “brief scatological material, a few profanities and milder oaths, as well as a single rough and a handful of crude terms.”)
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.