Review: First Man

Damien Chazelle’s third feature is an oddly circumspect blockbuster. Though this biopic of Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong fits neatly into the big-budget hero stylings of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, its focus on a character who was basically unknowable makes for a striking contrast in tone. The action set pieces are as good as space movies get, while the expository drama has a purposeful flatness that often feels inert. And while Ryan Gosling doesn’t look anything like Armstrong, his patented lack of affect sort of prepares you for the Enigma of Neil. In those rare instances where some sort of meaning peaks through the blank facade, the viewer feels they’ve learned something monumental.

In the domestic scenes, what works usually feels accidental, but that may be due to Chazelle’s command of his mise en scene. Though we’ve been bombarded by any number of films set in the early 1960s lately, First Man feels more comfortably situated in the age, not so much because of its detailed production design but rather its leisurely pacing. Life in these United States, mostly Houston and the Midwest, where Armstrong lived before moving to Texas to join the Apollo program, is strictly regimented, which is perfect for Armstrong’s meticulous sensibility. So when his very young daughter dies of a brain tumor, the news feels telegraphed, stressing its inevitability and the idea that Neil and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), have more than enough time to process their grief despite Neil’s work obligations. Janet herself is an unabashed full-time homemaker in a time and culture when such a calling was normalized to the point of a fetish, but the script by Josh Singer avoids the cliches of the over-worried astronaut wife by making Janet’s anxiety an almost tactile experience. She’s the red hot emotion-burner next to Neil’s cold-as-ice egghead, but you can see how that difference makes their marriage work, though it could only work in this particular milieu.

The movie also nails the peculiar occupational environment of the space program, which is portrayed as being neither macho nor super competitive but rather a job still in the process of achieving definition. Neil spends quite a few evenings popping beers with the other astronauts, who tend to be more emotionally demonstrative. If he fits into this boys club it’s because he understands before anyone else that teamwork is the soul of the program. Comradeship is not romantic wish fulfillment but a life-or-death requirement for these men. And when the movie finally enters into the Apollo 11 mission, you appreciate not just Armstrong’s stoical, over-achiever’s mein, but also his love for his fellow workers. The quasi-religious overtones of the visuals—the dusky browns reflecting off the surfaces of the dinky capsule interior, the deep blue-greys of the powdery dirt under Armstrong’s feet as he steps on the moon’s surface and delivers his famous line—bring home the real feeling of accomplishment, obviating most of the ethical struggle Armstrong felt with the cost of an enterprise that many believed wasn’t worth it. Chazelle himself often seems to wonder if it was worth it himself, beyond its obvious utility as a further means of proving himself to be Spielberg’s most natural heir.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Shinuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

First Man home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Universal Studios

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