Armstrong confronts the void
Space race compelling despite star’s blankness
When we first meet Neil Armstrong, he’s test-flying a plane high above the Earth — except it’s more like we’re flying it. Director Damien Chazelle puts his camera inside the craft, and so we see what Armstrong sees. The engines labor and roar, and the radio informs us that he’s “bouncing off the atmosphere,” which we know can’t be good. By the time he makes it back on the ground, we’re sure of a couple of things — one, that we’re exhausted, and two, that Armstrong was a remarkable pilot. “First Man” tells the story of Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, but it’s an unusual biopic in that it presents its subject as an enigma and practically a cipher. Without making too much of it, Chazelle (“La La Land”) suggests that Armstrong was permanently damaged by the death of his 2year-old daughter, from cancer, in 1962. The daughter scenes are few and frag-
mentary, almost impressionistic, but the choice of moments — the adorableness of the little girl and the openness with which Ryan Gosling, as Armstrong, looks at her — makes an impression. We never see that openness again.
So Chazelle gives himself a challenge, one he can’t fully overcome, to tell the story of a man who was barely there and yet maintain an audience’s interest for 141 minutes. He makes it yet harder on himself by directing his lead actor into virtual blankness, so that Gosling goes through most of the movie with his patented look of plaintive opacity. Still, Armstrong’s story and that of the space program are so inherently interesting that we’re willing to take the journey.
It helps that Chazelle has a fascinating take on the program, one that is perhaps closer to the day-to-day reality than we’ve seen previously in movies. Instead of a merry band of explorers, Chazelle gives us a small group of ambitious men, consciously risking their lives. The dread of death underlies social interactions even between the wives. One gets the sense that being married to an astronaut was like being married to a gladiator.
And for Janet Armstrong, it was even worse. Imagine being married to a gladiator who won’t comfort you, or share your anxieties, or help raise the kids, or even talk about what he’s going through, or what he’s thinking. As Armstrong’s quietly suffering wife, Claire Foy becomes the film’s emotional linchpin. Her life is nothing but stress — Neil is almost killed on three separate occasions — interrupted by stretches of utter boredom. Through it all, she has to maintain the smiling facade of the perfect mid-1960s wife.
Janet waits for the same thing the audience waits for, for Neil to drop the mask and have a human moment. He never does, and that begins to seem like an affectation of the movie: In real-life interviews, Armstrong seems a little nerdy, a little distant, a little reserved, and even a little dull, but not quite the zombie that Gosling portrays. But the more we become frustrated with Gosling, the more we connect with Foy as Janet, who embodies our frustration and suggests a turbulent, roiling inner life beneath the placid surface.
Anyway, who cares that “First Man” is like an outerspace zombie story? The drama of the real-life history overcomes the weakness of the lead character. The American space program starts out behind the Russians’ and struggles to get ahead. There are successes and horrors. Chazelle takes us onto the doomed Apollo 1 capsule, for a routine test that turns into a flaming holocaust in a matter of seconds. Chazelle’s direction is strenuous, sometimes too strenuous, but he phones in nothing, and there are many imaginative and arresting shots, such as reflections of the moon’s surface on the astronauts’ helmets. And when things get dull, there’s always Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, presented as Armstrong’s opposite — intemperate, tasteless and fun to be around.
By the way, there has been some fake controversy about the American flag not being shown in the lunar scene. Actually, it is, but there’s no scene of the astronauts implanting the flag, nor should there be. This is not a movie about triumph, national or personal. It’s about Armstrong confronting the emptiness — about his reaching the summit and finding the same barren vastness that he has tried to cultivate within himself.
It’s been true since Woodrow Wilson tried it in 1915, and it remains true today: Politicians (with the exception of Willie Brown) have no business reviewing movies.
Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong in “First Man.”
Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who walked on the moon in 1969, in Damien Chazelle’s “First Man.”