A Fine Romance Friday: First Man

This is neither Friday nor is the film in question precisely a romance, but today’s subject is Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018). I’ve wanted to watch it for months, and I finally had a few free hours to snag it from Redbox.

In the gap between its release and when I managed to see it, First Man received a critical reaction I’d characterize as positive but reserved and “only” four Academy Award nominations. So I went into it a bit apprehensive. If you enjoy what Genevieve Turner and I are doing with Fly Me to the Moon, however, I can almost guarantee you’ll adore First Man. While I have a few complaints, it’s visually stunning and a different take on the astronaut movie subgenre.

The film focuses on the period between 1961 and 1969, from just prior to when Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is selected as an astronaut through Apollo 11’s landing on the moon. It’s a big chunk of time; the first 30 minutes cover approximately four years, skimming over a wide range of personal and professional events before zooming in tight on the two missions Armstrong flew, Gemini 8 and Apollo 11. The film is more balanced than most other space history flicks (such as Apollo 13) in its portrait of Armstrong’s home life. Indeed, Claire Foy, who plays Armstrong’s wife Jan, is arguably the co-star.

First Man also particularly develops Armstrong’s friendship with astronaut Ed White (Jason Clarke), who died in the Apollo 1 fire. If you’ve read or watched any space history at all, however, none of the film’s plot will surprise you. You’re watching First Man not to find out what happened (I would guess), but to find out how it might have felt.

Which is the perfect segue to some more spoiler-y thoughts. Most importantly, I can understand how critics found the film to be emotionally distanced from its subject as Armstrong himself remains a cipher to me even after watching the almost 2.5 hour movie.

This isn’t necessarily a departure from history. Neil Armstrong was famously opaque. A recent BBC documentary, which has at times been available on Netflix and Amazon Prime, suggests that no one really knew the inner Armstrong. That he was respected but apart from the other astronauts, his family, and the public.

A slightly more flattering take on him appears in Carrying the Fire (which is one of my all-time favorite space race histories), in which astronaut Michael Collins describes Armstrong thusly:

Makes decisions slowly and well. As Borman gulps decisions, Armstrong savors them–rolling them around on his tongue like a fine wine and swallowing at the very last moment. (He had twenty seconds of fuel remaining when he landed on the moon.) Neil is a classy guy, and I can’t offhand think of a better choice to be first man on the moon. (60)

But I do think Gosling’s performance is partially to blame for what, if anything, is “wrong” with First Man. During the scene in which Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) tells Armstrong he will command the Apollo 11 mission, for example, Gosling betrays no emotional response at all, and the scene almost immediately cuts to something else. It’s a bizarre directing choice perhaps resulting from Gosling’s cold performance.

In contrast, Foy often communicates volumes about how Jan feels about events without saying a word or even really doing anything. A slight tightness in her jaw or a shift in her brows, and you get it.

For example, the final scene in the film takes place in the lunar receiving lab after the Apollo 11 mission has ended successfully. Jan is on one side of a window. Neil kisses his fingers and touches them to the glass, then immediately withdraws his hand. After a long, long moment, in which the audience know she’s thinking about everything they’ve sacrificed and lost, Jan presses her hand against the glass and then, finally, he reciprocates. The last shot is from her side of the divide, and there’s a reflection of her face obscuring his. It ranks with the best filmmaking I saw last year, but the power of the moment mostly comes from her and the glorious framing.

I don’t want to say that Gosling is bad in the movie because that’s not fair or probably accurate. But I do find him to be inscrutable in most roles (Blue Valentine being an exception) and, therefore, I think he might have been miscast as Armstrong. A more expressive actor might have shown the cracks in Armstrong’s facade more effectively.

I also think the decision to tell the story chronologically and to dramatize such a long period of time wasn’t the right one. The best space race movies focus on a single moment: Glenn’s orbit mission in Hidden Figures, Apollo 11 in The Dish, the Apollo 13 mission in the film of the same title, etc. I’m rarely in favor of flashbacks, but they could have been well deployed here to clip the timeline, so to speak.

Those criticisms aside, First Man looks absolutely amazing. I’d guess it was shot to film, because the cinematography has an absolute period look to it. I was sorry I didn’t see it in theaters, because the moon landing sequence must have been terrific on a big screen. That scene also includes several flashbacks that resemble home movies from the 50s and 60s–it’s the point when Armstrong finally grapples with the loss of his young daughter to a brain tumor–and it’s perfection.

Related, the use of light and dark throughout the film, both in cinematography and production design, is brilliant. The repeated shots down a hallway in the Armstrong’s house perfectly dramatizing the metaphorical space between the characters.

(Again, Foy manages to convey so much when she’s walking away from the camera down the corridor through her gait and the set of her shoulders. She’s amazing.)

The mission sequences are shot differently than the earth stuff, except for the scene where Jan and Neil finally have it out. The use of whip pans while they’re fighting recalls the mission mishap from Gemini 8, and it couldn’t be more perfect. (Then a few minutes later, when his sons question him about his upcoming mission, it’s perfectly parallel to the press doing the same.)

The sound design and music are phenomenal. The film is largely silent; I don’t think there’s any music at all in the opening X-15 flight until, afterward, Armstrong sings to his dying daughter. At times the film is in conversation with others on the same subject. The use of Delibes (I think) during the rendezvous/Gemini 8 sequence is an obvious homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it was really the absence of sound, such as when Armstrong descends the ladder to the moon’s surface, that impressed me.

So if you’ve put off seeing First Man because it didn’t seem to make bigger waves at the box office or on the awards circuit, you should watch it. It’s quiet in many ways (some literal!), but I found it mesmerizing. It’s beautifully shot, and Foy is absolutely terrific (that she didn’t receive an Oscar nom surprises me). If I had some quibbles with the writing and Gosling’s performance, that’s probably on me. But it’s a stunning film, and I truly enjoyed it.

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Author: Emma

Emma is a novelist, full-time mama, recovering academic, and former political staffer. When she’s not reading or writing, she loves her twins' hugs, her husband’s cooking, her cat’s whiskers, her dog’s tail, and Earl Grey tea.

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