Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle shot First Man, his gripping chronicle of NASA’s Gemini and Apollo missions through the eyes of Neil Armstrong, on a blend of film stocks normally employed for elaborate Hollywood sets and sweeping vistas. But projected on a towering IMAX screen, the docudrama’s aggressive use of close-ups creates a suffocating and scorching effect.
Instead of gifting star Ryan Gosling a glamour moment, the camera melts the actor’s face into a streaky wash of sweat and pulse as rocket boosters blast him into the great beyond time and time again. Chazelle gravitates toward the most claustrophobic images, whether trapped in an Apollo capsule, buckled into a test flight, or lying dormant in the backyard of a Houston rancher. Even insert shots of bolts and screws, and the little pieces that meant success or failure, life or death, become icons of abject terror under the large-scale microscope. A number of movies have recreated mankind’s space exploration, but First Man sends us on the mission with unparalleled immersion.
We meet Neil on the edge of the atmosphere, flying a test craft at supersonic speeds — and a little too close to the sun. Breaking free of Earth’s invisible hold, Neil finds himself drifting out into the abyss of space. The 4,000 mph rocket engines that brought him to this point won’t do squat; the only thing standing between him and a death sentence are the backup propulsion system and breakneck maneuvers. Logic tells us Neil lives. The mounting tension convinces us he’s a goner.
First Man has the narrative playfulness of Neil Armstrong’s buzzcut. The screenplay by Josh Singer (Spotlight) blueprints set pieces out of the space race timeline, and Chazelle carefully calibrates their construction, never getting too fancy. The grueling training programs for Gemini and Apollo speak — and dizzy — for themselves. Failed launches and the stench of death, sometimes before the astronaut crew even takes off, condense like a dark cloud over the Kennedy Space Center. Mission mathematics, vehicle testing, flyby missions, the highs of scientific achievement and the lows of political argument hit Neil’s determined, almost pathological presence like a punching bag. None of the characters, or the movie doing them justice, are willing to take a breath until they’ve put a man on the moon.
Stretches of the film suffer for this modular treatment, Neil’s relationship with his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and his two boys being the biggest misfire. Scenes when the astronaut returns home, the emotional underpinning of his occupational saga, crib hard from the wandering, distant observations of Tree of Life filmmaker Terrence Malick, while still feeling ham-fisted in a Hollywood way. Foy does what she can as an astronaut’s discarded wife — a gutting notion in and of itself — but with the film locked in on Neil’s perspective, and the way he’s haunted by their late daughter’s death in every waking hour, the actress can’t express real fear, real rage, or anything beyond what must challenge Neil’s mission.
The dramatics fall away when Neil takes to the sky. In First Man’s most hyperventilating scene, Neil and copilot David Scott (Christopher Abbott) embark on the Gemini 8 mission, which all goes according to plan when the crew successfully links up with the Agena spacecraft — the first docking of its kind. Within seconds of the maneuver, a critical system failure threatens the Gemini craft, and again, like a bomb defuser working in zero-g, Neil puzzles his way out of a fiery 200-mile-drop demise in a craft that might as well be a tin can sailing across the ocean. Justin Hurwitz’s symphonic score turns First Man into a grand experience, but in this moment — and the best ones in the film — the mind reels from the sounds of Gosling’s heavy breathing in a humid, hellish torture chamber.
By the time the Apollo 11 crew casts off toward the moon, and pulls off the precision landing required to make history, we’re breathing easier than at just about every other moment in the film. We know what happens next. Chazelle pulls back to see the dinky capsule floating across a vastness of stars. He opens up the screen to IMAX size to take in the pure whiteness of Earth’s then-untouched satellite. On cue, we take a breath of alien air. And wonder: Was the money, the political conquest, the lives all worth it?
First Man’s immersive quality makes way for bigger questions to be answered after the credits roll. By bringing us as close to enduring the space race as possible — through hyper close-ups, choppy camerawork, special effects that echo the strides of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and too many that-guy actors to name — Chazelle challenges the audience on the power of science, the fuel of American patriotism, the pompous trials of nationalism and the psychology of heroes.
The answers only begin to creep in during the final seconds, when a theremin carries Neil back to Earth, back to reality, back to the rest of his life. Before then, First Man is firmly centered on the journey: in the macro, in the micro, and in the synapse-snapping quantum mechanics of human behavior.
First Man opens in theaters on Oct. 12.