Zach Dirksen–Guest Writer
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. In that one event, Armstrong became an American hero. An icon. A legend.
But what about Neil Armstrong the husband? Neil Armstrong the father? Neil Armstrong the engineer? What do we know about the man beneath the spacesuit? This is the central premise behind Damien Chazelle’s film, First Man.
One might quickly lump First Man in with similar true-story space films like The Right Stuff or Apollo 13, but I believe it stands apart from them in its way of depicting the story. Whereas other “biopics” often portray their subjects as history sees them, First Man seeks to portray Armstrong as he saw himself, depicting the events of his life in such a way that we experience them as he did. With this subjective point-of-view, Chazelle crafts an incredibly immersive and intense story that not only re-contextualizes the moon landing and the Space Race, but offers a look behind the curtain at one of the most significant figures of the 20th Century.
Where a more objective film would’ve featured the Apollo 11 mission as its main plot point, First Man builds up to it, depicting Armstrong’s personal life as much as, if not more than, his work with NASA. We see Neil, played by an exceptionally stoic Ryan Gosling, in a polo and slacks as often as we see him in a spacesuit. We see him laughing with his fellow astronaut buddies, playing with his kids, dancing with his wife, and mourning the loss of his infant daughter. We see him piloting spacecraft, and we see him cleaning his swimming pool.
When the Apollo 11 mission finally enters the story, it’s a culmination of all that’s come before it, uniting the two sides of Neil’s life, home and work, into a firm and clear goal. Viewers see how and why this is important to Neil in a way that a conventional approach to this story might not be shown us.
To enhance this subjective viewpoint, Chazelle makes bold use of the camera. Chazelle’s camera is also almost always handheld, shaking and hovering in such a way that you feel you are there in the room with Armstrong and company. Also, the film is shot largely on 16mm film, giving it a gritty, grainy look that feels and looks like it’s actual footage shot in the 1960’s. The camerawork makes the film almost seem like a documentary, with the story playing out before you as if a cameraman was there the whole time.
The performances in the film support this immersive feel. Ryan Gosling, as mentioned above, is a master at implying emotion with minimal expression or facial movement. We “read” emotion onto him, giving us, the audience, an outlet for our empathy. Armstrong’s wife Janet, played by The Crown’s Claire Foy, is equally great, showing us the stress and doubt that can come with a life like the one Janet and Neil Armstrong lived. The rest of the cast is filled with recognizable faces, each playing a real-life figure in Neil Armstrong’s life. Notable examples are Kyle Chandler and Corey Stoll, giving dynamic, believable portrayals of Neil’s fellow astronauts.
Audiences may know Damien Chazelle’s work from his popular musical La La Land or even his slightly lesser-known but captivating film Whiplash. Chazelle flexes similar creative muscles here, bringing the intensity of Whiplash and the emotional acuity of La La Land to tell a story completely different from either of those films. First Man tells a true, albeit somewhat familiar story, that strives to paint a deeper, more human picture. It’s a film well-worth seeing.
As a final note, you may have heard some controversy over the use (or, rather, underuse) of the American flag in the film. In my opinion, it’s not an issue at all. I believe those who think it is either do not understand the film, or haven’t seen it yet.