At one point in Damien Chazelle’s glorious First Man, Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy), the wife of famed astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), dresses down some self-assured NASA administrators, comparing them to “a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood.” Part of the genius of the La La Land director’s biopic about the first human to walk on the moon is that it effectively portrays both the majesty and the folly of the space program. Chazelle embodies that dichotomy with the inclusion of two poems: pilot John Gillespie Magee’s “High Flight,” which marvels at having “slipped the surly bonds of earth,” and Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 recording of “Whitey on the Moon”: “I can’t pay no doctor bill / But Whitey’s on the moon / Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still / While Whitey’s on the moon.”
Adapted from James R. Hansen’s biography of the same name, First Man is unambiguous on one issue: the bravery and ingenuity of the test pilots and astronauts who faced death daily for the sake of history. Even the best entries in the space-film genre tend to sterilize interstellar travel, often portraying it as sleek and futuristic. First Man, better and more aggressively than any of its peers, conveys the grimy, harrowing mechanics of the early space program. Yes, there are scenes in which Chazelle pays homage to those cinematic predecessors, chiefly a portion of the Gemini 8 mission set to a waltz that’s an obvious paean to 2001: A Space Odyssey. But with the partial exception of the Apollo 11 moon shot, every rocket launch is filmed from a claustrophobic perspective inside the spacecraft, where every roar, shutter, and creak of the capsule carries palpable dread.
Chazelle shows the astronauts to be more than just guinea pigs strapped atop Roman candles. Armstrong, an engineering egghead and civilian test pilot, must make numerous life-or-death decisions through his career; some demonstrate his intelligence and some call into question whether he has the right stuff. His courage and skill shine during a trio of action sequences, some of the most thrilling you’re likely to see this year. The film opens with Armstrong kissing the cosmos during a breathtaking—and failed—X-15 test flight. His courage under fire burns brightest during the aborted Gemini 8 mission, which ends with his craft violently tumbling through space. Finally, accompanied by Justin Hurwitz’s soaring orchestration, Armstrong navigates a gripping, poignant descent of the Eagle Module to the lunar surface.
Over the eight years covered in the film, the Armstrongs live with death, from those of nameless pilot friends to their cancer-stricken young daughter to the launchpad fire that incinerated the Apollo 1 crew. When Gosling occasionally becomes a brooding cipher, Foy is there is refocus the narrative on the emotional toll exacted by his heroic destiny. Aided by cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s handheld camerawork, much of First Man is a meditative portrait of a taciturn yet resolute hero whose achievements are less about one small step for a man than a giant leap for mankind.
In our era of manipulative outrage and weaponized jingoism, one of the most ridiculous, phony episodes is the faux furor over Chazelle’s decision not to show Armstrong planting the U.S. flag on the lunar surface. But there’s a full complement of flag imagery throughout the film, including the already-erected moon flag itself. Moreover, Chazelle features JFK’s 1962 moon speech and couches the space race in terms of U.S. versus U.S.S.R. First Man is decidedly patriotic but not nationalistic. Armstrong’s first steps on the moon are cast as a moment of unity, not division, for all humankind. It’s a message we could use a lot more of nowadays.