First Man is no movie to show to kids who want to become astronauts. If anything, it illustrates how perilous and hard space exploration is. It follows the entire decade of the 60s, from the first NASA missions to Apollo 11, and shows that working as an astronaut in those times is no safe trade. People die. From the T-38 crash in early Gemini tests to the fire in the Apollo 1 cockpit, the film doesn't ignore disasters. Narrated entirely from Neil Armstrong's point of view and his family's, those people who are gone are colleagues, friends, or even neighbor. And as the others lose their lives, Neil continues advancing to the next level, riskier than the previous one.
One can imagine what kind of bravery and morale fortitude Apollo-era astronauts must have had to continue towards their goal. The popular image is the one of hot-shots and cow-boys so excited and with some much self-confidence they happily hop on the rocket ready to launch. We learn that that this is not the profile of Armstrong. In his case, death is not only a risk ahead, it is also a shadow behind. He lost his 2-years old daughter to a brain tumor before enlisting in the NASA space program. He is surrounded by death, and deals with it using total rectitude, coldness, and expertise. Such overall professionalism which certainly contributed to him having been selected to command Apollo 11. Ryan Gosling is absolutely suited for the role, which might be the peak of his career. He projects so much intensity, yet inspire so much calmness. His composure and silence form a fortress to an internal storm that is palpable.
The movie soars when it demonstrates the perilous nature of space exploitation from inside a spaceship. Those scenes are so masterfully done they are enthralling. You don't even observe it, you are in it. Director Damien Chazelle uses all the tooling at his disposition to immerse us into the missions, and it works impressively well. First-person shots entering the confined cockpits reproduced to incredible detail. Close-ups to nuts and bolts to show that this thing is fundamentally a pile of scrap that is going to be shot into space. Various distant metallic cracks when it is about to get alive. This is the most incredible rendition of what it must feel to be in a rocket I ever experienced.
We like to impress ourselves with the anecdote that states that the Apollo program sent men to the Moon with a computing power that is less than what is available today in a single cellphone. So we should also impress ourselves with the fact that First Man was made with a budget of $59 millions, which is about a third of what is usually available to those kinds of movies. The lack of budget sometimes shows. When the crawler is bringing the Saturn V rocket from the hangar to the launchpad, we only get to see the crawler. The astronauts, by-standing, are looking up and commenting on the impressive size of the rocket, but we never get to see what they see. Chazelle therefore needs to employ wonders of creativity to convince us, and he delivers. By filming the astronauts taking the elevator to the top of the rocket, we get to see the big cylinder going by vertically while we gain scary height as we can tell by the Cap Canaveral early morning scenery. There you understand the sheer scale of what is happening. They intend to launch a high-rise building into space!
First Man is about war as much as it is about space. The reasons the U.S. were fueling the space program was solely to beat the Soviets at it. Those astronauts entering spaceships to go to space were really entering heavy machinery to go to war. And those who lost their lives in a test were fallen brothers of a battle. Add to that the stern, stoic personality of Armstrong, and "Cold War" would have made an alternative title full of sense.
For Armstrong though, it seems to be an escape. When saddened by the loss of a colleague, he desires solitude from his wife, or rather the company of the Moon, which he observes with a sextant. When the Saturn V is headed towards the Moon and the interstage ring separates from the rocket's second stage, the sustained shot of the ring falling back to Earth rhymes with the way a man would remove his own wedding ring before leaving his family for a get away he might never be coming back from.
First Man is not a crowd pleaser. Neil Armstrong's detached behavior would be a mood killer for those who expect the movie to be a modern revision of The Right Stuff with hot-shots. The absence of joy, however, is not to be confused with the absence of character development. Of all the characters that are presented to us, Armstrong is certainly the one on whom the idea of going to the Moon has the deepest impact.
When they accomplish an achievement, Armstrong's colleagues congratulate themselves for getting closer at beating the reds. But when, at his initial NASA interview, Armstrong is asked why he thinks space exploration is important, he answers that it is because it provides a shift in perspective. He is describing what is now documented as the overview effect. His mates are warriors. He is a sailor. When him and Buzz Aldrin has set foot on the Moon, Aldrin is shown jumping around as if it was playground time. Armstrong is experiencing a profound emotional meltdown. It is eerie, in this moment, how, behind the opaque silver-plated visor of his helmet, we can almost understand more about his internal state as we ever could during the rest of the movie on Earth. And as we start being able to peek through this impenetrable facade, he seems to finally have found a way to commune with himself.
The movie is unconventional on various fronts. It is a saga on an entire decade yet you don't have the usual montages to show progression. This doesn't prevent the rhythm of the movie from being fantastic. As soon as you think the story might be about to develop a segment that is going to be a bit boring, it moves on without further ado to the next interesting chapter. There is not a single second in those almost 150 minutes that is useless. The music is from outer space. When the lunar module is about to land, Justin Hurwitz drops an incredible melody made of strings and brass instruments going stronger and stronger in an almost jazzy mood. As the narration focuses on Armstrong flying the module and doesn't show the conventional tour of the world with people listening to the live feed on the radio or TV, the music alone, with its originality and wonder, conveys perfectly the greatness of what is happening.
This is a film made by people who decided not to take the traditional paths, and who designed their own beautiful ones. They are true artists, and this is a masterpiece.