The thrilling and teeth-rattling opening sequence of First Man shows a test pilot in 1961 as he flies up to 140,000 feet, then almost doesn’t make it back. No, his plane doesn’t explode at that altitude, it just threatens to “bounce off the atmosphere”, hurling him out to space. Yikes! This scene viscerally and effectively introduces the danger and the surprises that faced these test pilots and later astronauts as they experimented with pushing through the envelope of the sky to the great beyond. This pilot so happens to be Neil Armstrong, who we all know is destined for historic things.
As played by Ryan Gosling, Armstrong is a smart, proud engineer and pilot who is suffering from the loss of his young daughter to cancer. Except for one isolated moment, First Man‘s Armstrong keeps his emotions locked away in a distant, dark place that may as well be the moon. This arm’s-length stoicism is carried through his journey from being a test pilot, to a Gemini astronaut, to being the first man to set foot on the moon. This leaves Claire Foy, as his beleaguered wife Jan, to do the heavy lifting. She offers emotional heft to the relationship, whether she’s screaming at her husband, occasionally throwing things, or looking in dismay at the increasing number of widows in their tight knit neighborhood of astronauts. In contrast, Armstrong’s blank-slate persona supposedly hints at still waters running deep… But, he ends up giving you little to hold on to emotionally except the first-man perspective of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
The camerawork, especially in the first half of the film, is of the infuriatingly unnecessary handheld variety. This is a camera trick that should have been laid to rest after the first audience vomited at the Blair Witch Project. No, it does not lend a sense of urgency to people sitting still in room, it just makes you want to scream, “Hold the camera still, dammit!” The shaky hand often distracts from the impressive look of the film, especially the scenes at Mission Control in Houston, which are lit in a way that almost looks like they may have been lifted from the real footage.
With that major complaint out of the way, I do have to say the sound effects and sound design are outstanding. Perhaps what I took away most was the sensation that the astronauts were hurled into space at great force and fury in what seemed to be a pieces of metal barely sealed and held together with nuts and bolts that threatened to fly apart at any minute. In the way that “place” can serve as the main character in a film, “sound” is a huge part of the story of First Man. Whether it is a metallic groan of strained metal or the dull, deadly thud of an oxygen-fueled explosion in an enclosed space, these sounds from the film stick with me more than the characters or the images.
I do appreciate what Damian Chazelle and his team did here, despite my quibbles. They did manage to make a film that will inevitably be compared with The Right Stuff or Apollo 13, but stands on its own stylistically. You won’t find the swelling music or the the rah-rah patriotism, or even very much of the brotherhood of the astronauts. You won’t see Armstrong beaming for the cameras, or being celebrated in a parade. Instead, you see one man’s truly strange experience of training for the unknown, being shot into space on a rocket, and landing on a rock in space carrying not just the expectations of the world, but the hope of achieving peace with the sorrows of his own life.