A 2018 biopic titled “First Man” invites expectations of, if not a chest-thumping celebration of NASA and its success in landing men on the Moon, then at least a celebration of the life of Neil Armstrong, the titular man itself. The film is neither. It’s not a celebration at all. It’s an relentlessly interior dive into the emotional stultification of the sort of man that could conceivably draw a throughline between his grief over the death of his daughter and countless friends around him, with the expansion of human perception seeing things from space enables. He, and the film, marry the endless black gulf of space with the bottomless despairing pit of grief, and it’s only through pushing through those dark expanses that any sort of new perspective can be attained.
That new perspective is communicated visually through the majority of the film being filmed shakily and handheld on 35mm at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio before literally visually expanding to IMAX 65mm at a 1.40:1 aspect ratio when the astronauts finally touch on the Moon and open the Eagle’s hatch. Most of the film puts the viewer in Neil’s headspace, trapped (it’s not just the smaller aspect ratio, the shots themselves are also framed in ways that emphasise claustrophobically cramped spaces), frenetic, and above all else unstable.
Ryan Gosling’s performance is the closest thing to stability the film offers, iterating on the type of icy, understated personification of stoicism through repression he played in “Drive” and “Blade Runner 2049” as well, performances where huge wells of emotion are hidden under a pitifully masculine, mechanical void of expression.
The instability of life isn’t entirely Earthbound either, as the flight sequences in the film embody horror and confusion where other films of this nature would shoot for euphoria and triumph. The majesty of the sky, and later space itself, are glimpsed through the narrow slits and windows of aircraft, director Damien Chazelle generally refusing to cut to exterior wide shots to communicate the beauty and glory of where those ships are traversing. Everything is confined to the astronaut’s headspace. The trembling and shaking of the camera is accentuated by the clattering and roaring of the sound design inside the ships, the groaning metal, hissing of oxygen pipes, roaring engines, clamouring of parts of the ships not meant to be shaking quite that hard. Some flight sequences are constrained to extreme close-ups of Gosling’s face, recalling the Star Gate sequence of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but where Kubrick dove into cosmic and temporal abstractions, Chazelle keeps the camera rooted in the ships that almost amount to isolation tanks, with the viewer party to the discomfort of the visceral sensory overload the astronauts were.
Even in the inescapably triumphant Moon landing sequence, Chazelle resists the genre cliche of cutting back to mission control, or even to Neil’s wife Janet (Claire Foy skilfully keeps measure of a nuanced cocktail of emotions in her performance of this role), keeping the experience strapped singularly to Neil’s mindset. The film is not even celebratory, so how could it approach being ra-ra, chest-thumping, or nationalist? Just as the Moon and space are great equalisers, beyond the differences that split people on Earth, so too is the film’s main focus on grief and channelling internalised suffering and loss into endurance, single-minded commitment, crucibles of determined focus on getting a job done. As Kennedy said when he announced America’s lunar intent, ”We choose to go to the Moon…not because [it’s] easy, but because [it’s] hard”.
In keeping with Chazelle’s other films, whether the wilful tolerance of abuse and degrading mental health in the pursuit of musical proficiency in “Whiplash” or the heartbreak and stability overpowered by pursuit of success in showbiz in “La La Land”, the protagonist’s single-minded pursuit is not unduly glorified. While Armstrong himself remains, if not quite a cipher then at least a conscious attempt at one, the film offers up a kind of Greek chorus of doubt around him, with protests, friends, family, even true-to-life interviews of minds of the time casting reasonable doubt on the wisdom, necessity, and ethics of mission Armstrong threw himself into. The beauty of the lunar surface, and awe in light of what was achieved in landing humans there, is undeniable in the film, but it’s telling the film doesn’t end there, but back on Earth, on a note of ambiguity.
The final shot of the film sees Armstrong still in quarantine shortly after arriving back on Earth, separated by his wife by a glass window, the both of them wordless, reaching hands out to each other but separated nonetheless. The framing and lighting of the shot sees Janet’s face reflected onto the exact position where Neil’s head is, literally having her on his mind. But back on Earth, back in the more constrained aspect ratio and back on 35mm film, while perspective was surely gained from the trip to the Moon, Neil is not on the Moon anymore. Earlier in the film, regarding yet another failed mission test, Neil says “we need to fail down here so we don’t fail up there”. That line takes on a sadder, sour second meaning as the Armstrong family continues to fracture and hurt as he single-mindedly pursues the Moon, and the film pointedly doesn’t depict what comes next. The elation Neil and the audience feel at seeing the Earth’s atmosphere at the start of the film and the lunar surface at the end are unforgettable, and wonder of wonders not unattainable, but they aren’t sustainable.
It is a nice thought that, like Neil says in his interview for an astronaut position, “When you get a different vantage point it changes your perspective…it allows you to see things you should have seen a long time ago”, but the film resists the triteness of treating that changed perspective, and the fleetingness of the moments that bring it, as necessarily everlasting or a motivator of actual material beneficial change back on Earth. It does so to the extent that one wonders if the Herculean effort required for near-impossible single-minded pursuits aren’t as much the real motivator in themselves, blinkering their pursuers from the frustrations and complexities of their emotional reality. These kind of complex emotional issues speak to how the film humanises and deconstructs the sort of figure that, even if not an outright an astronaut, films tend to portray as both capable of not juts near-superheroic feats but also charisma and warmth as well. Neil’s gargantuan achievement and his clinical coldness are inseparable here; it’s no coincidence Gosling plays him as more terrified of having to directly tell his sons he may well die on the lunar mission than of the lunar mission itself.
The film marks a pivot for the director away from the music focus of his earlier films, but the interiority and self-destructive drive of the protagonist is a very clear link in focus and thematics. Music still remains a key as well, with composer Justin Hurwitz revolving through key themes across the film. The primary theme, associated with the Armstrongs is both propulsive and ethereal, conveying both the stability and ever forward-focus of Neil (best heard in its triumphant rendition as he pilots the landing on the lunar surface, but also in a jaunty spin during a montage of NASA training) and the dreamy unreality of the family he slips in and out of. A secondary theme keeps itself more to moments of focus and progression, shorter, more repetitive and less varied than the Armstrong theme. A third motif is distinctively brought to life on a theremin, a spacey-sounding instrument of artificiality but also one that does a haunting job of approximating the human voice, almost sounding like a wail, as befitting the fact it plays most often at moments concerning the Armstrong’s deceased daughter. Its most striking rendition occurs in perhaps the most inspired (and quite possibly most dramatised, least literal) moment, where Neil casts a treasured bracelet of his daughter’s into a deep lunar crater, emoting to an extent only matched by his tearful breakdown at his daughter’s funeral. This is the clearest moment of confluence between the strength of the throughline the film finds connecting the unknowable and the unattainable, the dual darknesses of space and despair, obsession as channelling of trauma, the cosmic as the source of the sort of perspective shift needed to contemplate the human experience with any meaningful distance. Five Eagles and a crater.