First Man, Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to La La Land could not be more different than his previous films. For one thing, First Man is not about music. For another, it is a much bigger production in scope, scale, and imagination, and Chazelle takes to this kind of grandiose filmmaking in a way that recalls other filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg. In fact, First Man is to the moon landing as Saving Private Ryan is to World War II. That is, First Man is a technically flawless recreation of a hellish and terrifying moment in history, and for those of us who weren’t alive to witness it in real time, this film is as close as we will get to the thrill, awe, and sheer terror of watching human beings step onto the moon. But unlike Saving Private Ryan, the historical recreation in First Man comes at the end, not the beginning. In First Man, we first have to watch an intimate portrait of a 20th century icon before watching him take that iconic first step on the moon. And for all the technical wizardry and historical accuracy of First Man, it is that character study that makes it so good.
The film traces Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from 1961 to 1969, essentially covering the space race as one man’s quest through loss and grief. It begins with the death of Neil’s young daughter, Karen, a loss which Neil endures in private, acknowledging it public but not allowing grief to overtake him. The overwhelming impression of Neil is that of an intensely private man who is often at odds with the public nature of his job as astronaut. He seems partly a product of that generation of men who were taught to master their emotions until they became unbearable repressed nightmares to live with, but also partly just a naturally private person. He is a quiet and thoughtful man, who considers his words and copes with the danger of his job simply by pretending it isn’t dangerous.
But that doesn’t work so well for his wife, Janet (Claire Foy). This is not the usual Supportive Wife typical of Great Man biopics, but Janet is still underwritten compared to Neil. The film is about Neil, but that doesn’t mean the time given to Janet can’t be smartly utilized to make her as tangible a person. Foy makes the most of it, and there is a sense of the tremendous stress and pressure on Janet to maintain the image of a happy homefront even as their relationship grows strained. No matter what is happening behind closed doors, Janet has to keep up appearances for the cameras documenting the space race, and Foy grows increasingly brittle in her performance as time wears on. First Man does better by its wife than most Great Man biopics, but still falls short of making Janet her own person.
That is the only real issue with the film, though. It is otherwise terrific, with stunning visuals, an OUTSTANDING score from Chazelle’s collaborator Justin Hurwitz, f-cking terrifying historical recreations of rocket launches and test flights, and deeply felt human moments between Neil and his family and the other astronauts, several of whom perish in pursuit of their dream. Far from glamorizing space flight, First Man makes space travel seem just godawful, and in so doing it honors the astronauts without resorting to the Michael Bay School of Flag-Waving Patriotism. This is probably why there is a controversy surrounding this film—it doesn’t give into stereotypical portrayals of heroism as chest-thumping masculinity but instead portrays heroism as basic survival in the face of great odds. (Also, there are American flags all over this film, and a closing montage of reactions from around the world acknowledge the moon landing as a specifically American achievement so everyone can untwist their undies.)
First Man recreates the moon landing but it isn’t really about the moon landing. It’s about Neil Armstrong and his grief, and how that fuels his determination. It’s about the journey of letting go and how some people have to go to the literal moon in order to do so. It’s about the losses of one man and the sacrifices of many others, and it’s about as good a character study as you’ll find this year. First Man is as much a spectacle as it is an emotional experience, and in that way feels as old-fashioned as its protagonist.