Damien Chazelle’s ‘First Man’ soars be­yond the typ­i­cal biopic


The most cap­ti­vat­ing se­quence in “First Man,” Damien Chazelle’s heart-stir­ring, nerve­jan­gling new movie about Neil Arm­strong’s voy­age to the moon, is in some ways the least sur­pris­ing. If you were glued to a TV screen on July 20, 1969, you will be watch­ing a trun­cated ver­sion of his­tory re­play it­self: Af­ter the Ea­gle lands, Arm­strong (played by Ryan Gosling) plants one foot on the lu­nar sur­face and ut­ters a line that no screen­writer could im­prove upon. But you will also find your­self trans­ported anew by a scene whose tech­ni­cal in­ge­nu­ity and emo­tional force re­minded me of noth­ing so much as Dorothy open­ing her front door to Oz for the first time.

The door, in this case, is at­tached to the Apollo 11’s lu­nar mod­ule, and on the other side is not a Tech­ni­color won­der­land but rather a vast, monochrome blank­ness. Planet Earth re­ally does seem to have been left be­hind, leav­ing only a dark, air­less void, a zone of desolation and won­der. The vi­su­als are ma­jes­tic — see the movie in Imax if you can — but the most ar­rest­ing ef­fect might be the sound, which briefly drops out en­tirely: In space, no one can hear you gasp.

The sheer sub­lim­ity of this se­quence — the eerie si­lence, the still­ness and clar­ity of the im­age — stands in sharp con­trast to the rest of the movie, which is framed with al­most de­fi­ant in­el­e­gance. “First Man” is a vis­cer­ally, some­times mad­den­ingly idio­syn­cratic piece of film­mak­ing. Adapted from James R. Hansen’s 2012 Arm­strong bi­og­ra­phy, the movie has been shot and struc­tured as a se­ries of rup­tures — phys­i­cal and emo­tional, in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive — that even­tu­ally give birth to a rare, serene mo­ment of tri­umph.

Some in the au­di­ence may look back on that tri­umph and see an in­evitabil­ity, a log­i­cal cul­mi­na­tion of man­i­fest destiny. But “First Man,” shun­ning the temptations of com­pla­cency and re­vi­sion­ism, un­folds in a jagged, im­me­di­ate present tense in which un­cer­tainty is the only cer­tainty.

The early scenes of Arm­strong as a young en­gi­neer and pi­lot in 1961, test­ing fighter planes at strato­spheric al­ti­tudes, in­duce a dizzy­ing claus­tro­pho­bia. The clam­orous noise of the en­gines and the rat­tling mo­tions of the air­craft re­mind you of the vi­o­lent ir­ra­tional­ity of hu­man flight. Even back on the ground, the cam­era, wielded by the cin­e­matog­ra­pher Li­nus Sand­gren, main­tains a per­sis­tent case of the jit­ters, com­pounded by the will­ful dis­ori­en­ta­tion of Tom Cross’ edit­ing. The screen­play by Josh Singer (“Spot­light,” “The Post”) com­pounds the ef­fect in dra­matic terms, piec­ing to­gether a whiplash-in­duc­ing nar­ra­tive of fa­tal set­backs and sud­den break-


Amid all this whirling, jolt­ing tech­nique is a quiet cen­ter of grav­ity named Neil Arm­strong, whom Gosling in­vests with tac­i­turn grace and an art­fully dimmed ver­sion of the movie-star charm that an­i­mated his pre­vi­ous col­lab­o­ra­tion with Chazelle, “La La Land.” Arm­strong, who largely re­treated from the spot­light af­ter Apollo 11, was fa­mously the least f lashy, most self-ef­fac­ing of Amer­i­can icons, which presents a sig­nif­i­cant hur­dle for any film­maker try­ing to il­lu­mi­nate his in­ner life. Gosling’s per­for­mance sen­si­bly em­pha­sizes at least two ir­refutable points: He didn’t say much, and he was very, very good at his job.

But “First Man” nat­u­rally wants to tell us more than that, to chron­i­cle not just a stag­ger­ing phys­i­cal trek but also a deep jour­ney in­ward. The movie’s chal­lenge, one to which it rises de­ter­minedly if not al­ways ef­fec­tively, is to pare back the outer lay­ers of Arm­strong’s pri­vacy with­out vi­o­lat­ing it. There’s a brief, soli­tary shot of him weep­ing af­ter he and his wife, Janet (a strong Claire Foy), lose their 2-year-old daugh­ter, Karen, to can­cer — a loss that af­fects Neil so deeply, the movie sug­gests, that his only re­sponse can be to ap­pear as out­wardly un­af­fected as pos­si­ble.

And so he throws him­self into his work and moves with Janet and their two sons to Hous­ton, where he en­ters an as­tro­naut train­ing pro­gram for NASA’s new Gem­ini space­craft. The warm, re­spect­ful ca­ma­raderie Neil en­joys with his col­leagues — they in­clude his across-thestreet neigh­bor Ed White (Jason Clarke), Gus Gris­som (Shea Whigham), Roger Chaf­fee (Cory Michael Smith), Elliot See (Pa­trick Fugit), Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber) and Dave Scott (Christo­pher Ab­bott) — masks a gen­tly un­der­stated ri­valry within NASA’s ranks. (It’s less un­der­stated in the case of Arm­strong’s fu­ture Apollo 11 part­ner Buzz Aldrin, played in a de­light­fully ob­nox­ious turn by Corey Stoll.)

But com­pet­i­tive­ness gives way to stiff up­per lip sor­row when the mis­sion to the moon ex­acts a hu­man toll in plane crashes and prelaunch ac­ci­dents, trig­ger­ing wide­spread crit­i­cism of the space pro­gram. “First Man” deftly elides a decade’s worth of na­tional upheaval, as the space race finds it­self caught be­tween the mount­ing anx­i­eties of the Cold War and the an­gry re­sis­tance of a pub­lic pre­oc­cu­pied with Viet­nam and the civil rights move­ment. We hear snip­pets of Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy’s 1962 “We Choose to Go to the Moon” speech, but also of Leon Bridges per­form­ing Gil Scott-Heron’s protest poem “Whitey on the Moon,” a po­lit­i­cally charged anom­aly on a sound­track oth­er­wise dom­i­nated by in­dus­trial noise and Justin Hur­witz’s gor­geously churn­ing score.

Chazelle has a good ear, as ad­mir­ers of “Guy and Made­line on a Park Bench,” “Whiplash” and “La La Land” al­ready know. “First Man” is his first bi­o­graph­i­cal drama and his first film not to con­cern it­self with the lives of mu­si­cal artists — or is it? One of the stray bits of trivia we learn here is that be­fore Arm­strong launched his sto­ried aero­nau­ti­cal ca­reer, he was the mu­sic di­rec­tor of his col­lege’s fra­ter­nity, a throw­away de­tail that also feels like a clue.

In this pic­ture’s thought­ful, ec­cen­tric and some­times wor­ship­ful-to-a-fault telling, Arm­strong emerges as an ob­ses­sive artist in his own right, an ex­pert tech­ni­cian whose less quan­tifi­able tem­per­a­men­tal gifts — a preter­nat­u­ral calm, a wry sense of hu­mor, a dare­devil streak that never feels mo­ti­vated by ego — may well have made the dif­fer­ence be­tween life and death. His blend of ob­ses­sive worka­holism and emo­tional re­serve ar­mors him against grief, but it also dis­tances him from Janet and their kids, who see less and less of him as he pre­pares for a jour­ney from which he may not re­turn.

Writ­ing about “First Man” a few weeks ago from the Toronto International Film Fes­ti­val, I noted that I liked the idea of the movie more than I liked the movie it­self. That still holds true, al­though a se­cond view­ing has closed the gap sig­nif­i­cantly. Chazelle seems to be try­ing to both up­hold and tran­scend the nar­ra­tive tem­plate es­tab­lished by as­tro­naut dra­mas like “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13,” with their scenes of hard-work­ing men bark­ing or­ders from ground con­trol (Kyle Chan­dler does the hon­ors nicely here), and of as­tro­nauts’ wives wor­ry­ing that they may soon be wi­d­ows. Even his mis­steps — the vis­ual monotony of the hand­held close­ups, the over-in­sis­tent evo­ca­tions of Karen’s death — un­der­score his de­sire to tell a story of col­lec­tive ac­com­plish­ment through one man’s har­row­ing per­spec­tive.

Which brings us to the fool­ishly drummed-up con­tro­versy that pre­ceded the movie’s ar­rival in the­aters. You may have read the early fes­ti­val re­ports not­ing that “First Man” doesn’t show the U.S. flag be­ing planted on the lu­nar sur­face — a mat­ter that was quickly seized upon by con­ser­va­tive politi­cians and com­men­ta­tors who, de­spite not hav­ing seen the film, wasted no time in lam­bast­ing it as anti-Amer­i­can. I ques­tion the judg­ment of any­one who would re­duce a movie’s (or a per­son’s) pa­tri­otic spirit to a sim­ple dis­play of flag wav­ing; more to the point, I ques­tion the judg­ment of any­one pur­port­ing to crit­i­cize a movie they hadn’t seen yet.

To be per­fectly clear: The planting isn’t shown but the flag very much is, hov­er­ing over the lu­nar sur­face. Chazelle, more artist than pro­pa­gan­dist, treats its pres­ence as a mat­ter-of-fact de­tail rather than a point of cul­mi­na­tion; he’s af­ter a more in­ti­mate re­sponse than a swell of na­tional pride. He takes an achieve­ment that might have been played for easy tri­umph and casts it as one man’s solemn reck­on­ing with the sor­rows, fail­ures, sac­ri­fices and con­vic­tions that have brought him to this ex­tra­or­di­nary mo­ment. We may not truly know Neil Arm­strong by movie’s end, but we know that his one small step con­tained mul­ti­tudes.

Daniel McFad­den Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios

RYAN GOSLING again teams with Damien Chazelle in “First Man,” por­tray­ing a young Neil Arm­strong on his way to the moon.

Pho­tographs by Daniel McFad­den Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios

RYAN GOSLING’S Neil Arm­strong and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), grap­ple with fam­ily tragedy and his ris­ing ca­reer at NASA in Damien Chazelle’s “First Man.”

APOLLO 11 as­tro­nauts Corey Stoll, left, Lukas Haas and Gosling set off for his­tory in “First Man.”

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