The love affair between movies and space has been around since, well, the beginning. One of the first movies ever made was Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902), about a group of astronauts who travel to the moon. It seems man has always been fascinated with space flight and the history of cinema has reflected that curiosity, sense of adventure and wonder. Even though space movies have ventured much deeper into the void since 1902, the moon was and will always be our most intimately explored subject, as it is the closest to us, yet still far enough away to seem unreachable by any average person. So close, and, yet…so far.
Even this deep into humanity’s existence, space travel is reserved for the most daring, the most capable and the most dedicated. Only a noted few in history have ventured beyond our atmosphere, which, in the annals of human history, still counts as the rarest achievement. For a little perspective, up until 2010, 3,412 people have climbed Mt. Everest, the greatest achievement on this planet, whereas, as of 2013, only 536 people have ever been to space. And, of those 536, only 12 have ever walked on the face of the moon. Only 12 souls have ever set foot on an interplanetary object other than ours. I can’t imagine a story more made for the movies than that of the first person ever to do so.
So, when I heard that director Damien Chazelle, the Oscar-winning director of La La Land, my favorite movie of 2016, was making a movie about Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, and it starred Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, I was in. I was beyond excited for the possibilities with these artists working together to combine the adventure and beauty of space with the true story of an American legend. Well, the movie, First Man, is now out and I have finally seen it. And, sad to say, I was disappointed. For all it could have been—for all I was expecting and hoping it to be—it ended up being something quite different.
So close, and, yet, so far.
I found it impossible, right off the bat, not to compare First Man to two other movies, The Right Stuff, the classic 1983 movie from Philip Kaufman, and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, from 2013. First Man begins as Neil Armstrong is just beginning his training for the NASA Gemini and Apollo missions, which instantly took me to The Right Stuff, which so thoroughly captured astronaut training with drama and depth. And then First Man follows Armstrong through several space flights, including his most famous one, and it was hard to not compare these space travel scenes with those from Gravity, the most compelling astronaut-in-space movie I’ve ever seen. I know it’s not fair to compare First Man with these or with any other movies, but the brutal fact is, every movie has to find a way to separate itself from the rest. If you feel, even for a minute, that you’ve already seen this, then you’re already out of the movie. The problem here is that I feel Chazelle was fighting that, so he tried to make a movie that nobody was expecting, stylistically, one that could separate itself from every other space movie—and to find a way to tell a very familiar story in a new way.
Further complicating Chazelle’s ability to nuance, I’m sure, is the fact that, in truth, the things about Neil Armstrong that caused him to be chosen to be first on the moon are all things that make him a really boring movie hero. He was picked because he was not flashy, he had no ego and there was nothing controversial about him. He was smart, solid, capable and really good at his job. Nice, but not exactly the stuff great dramas are made of. So Chazelle had to find drama elsewhere. And that he did. Just not in the places and the ways I was expecting.
The movie may be called First Man, which implies a movie about Armstrong, but the movie isn’t even really about him. Instead of being called First Man, it should have been called An Ode to Steel, because the most captivating elements of this movie aren’t made of flesh and blood, they are metal.
Whenever I fly, I am profoundly in awe of how air travel even happens. How a large, heavy tube of steel, filled with people and things, can even lift off, let alone fly long distances without dropping to the ground. What astounds me even further is space travel. How a human being can climb inside an even smaller metal cylinder, trusting that it will be able to withstand the speed, heat and intensity of rocketing through the atmosphere and out into space truly boggles my mind. But beyond the bravery and courage it takes to do that, I am even more impressed and awed by the fact that we found a way to do it in the first place. It’s astonishing to me even today, but, in the early ‘60s, before there were computers and digital capabilities and all the advances in metallics and plastics, humans still found a way to build a vehicle that could take a man into space. Not only to withstand all the elements that were known, but everything unknown as well. To keep a human alive, to be able to communicate with him, to build instruments that keep working and to find a way to bring him back safely, all while successfully completing a mission, whether it be docking in space or landing on another orb and be able to leave it again—all this truly is astonishing. And this, for me, is what First Man is all about. It is not a beautiful movie, it is not even really compelling or moving, but what it is is astonishing. Because Chazelle puts you right in those moments of pioneering exhileration and the wonders of math and physics. He films the elements of the capsule, from the switches to the windows to the doors to the seats in such detail, these vessels feel like their own characters. You feel the violent shaking and the pressure and the heat and the intensity and inability to focus or barely even to stay conscious. What First Man captures and celebrates is not the achievement of landing on the moon or what happened when we got there, it’s that we got there at all.
So Chazelle does find a way to separate himself, to take a somewhat familiar setting and story and show it in fresher ways. Unfortunately, these fresher ways come off as more technically riveting and less emotionally moving, which makes the movie feel somewhat cold. Much like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, the power of the movie is in the mechanical and logistical movements on screen, and the humanity is portrayed with minimal emotional impact.
There is a human story that is told in First Man, but it takes a back seat to the aeronautical feats. There is a certain complexity in telling the story of one man and his losses and loves played against a backdrop of human invention and achievement, but Chazelle chooses to have the human story be in the background, to color more than drive the movie.
Gosling is fine as Armstrong, and Claire Foy is capable as Armstrong’s neglected wife, and the moments on earth that attempt to show the pair as an ordinary couple dealing with extraordinary events play well, but the movie lives and breathes when Armstrong is hurtling into space, attempting to achieve feats of bravery and exploration that will serve as a marker on mankind’s existence. The production values in First Man are all stunning, from Justin Hurwitz’s haunting and spare score to Linus Sandgren’s beautiful cinematography. Chazelle should be lauded for his technical achievement, no doubt.
In the end, First Man is a lovely paean to human ingenuity, bravery and ambition. I just wish it had shown a little more heart.