Not Just Another Trip: First Man (2018)
When it was announced Damien Chazelle would direct First Man, a Neil Armstrong biopic starring Ryan Gosling, as a follow up to the Oscars darling La La Land, many of us scratched our heads. It has been fifty years now since the Moon landing; with the endless hours of documentaries, countless films, and the facts we learn in school, this is an event all Americans are familiar with. Could Chazelle find water in a seemingly dried up well? By making this a movie that uses the camera and the score as much as the script, to tell a story about how a man ends up being the first human to set foot on the Moon, Chazelle succeeds in breathing new life into the cinematic value of the space race.
In the opening frames, we are immediately shown the tools he’s using to subvert the genre and tell this story in an entirely new way. We open with Neil in the cockpit, a sort of POV shot that allows us to see the skies as he sees them. The camera doesn't leave the cockpit during the “action” shots, as most movies of this kind would. Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren could collect a dozen money shots in the first ten minutes, but instead they decide to keep the lens with Neil, shaking through the layers of the atmosphere.
When Neil breaks through the atmosphere and sees the curvature of the earth, we first see it as a reflection in his helmet (a trick that will be used effectively throughout the movie) and then as he does, through the small windows of the aircraft. It is, of course, a gorgeous shot, but not in the way we are used to seeing. The camera only leaves the inside of the cockpit to cut to stunning shots from the wings and underbelly of the aircraft, leaving Neil’s perspective but never the craft’s.
Immediately, First Man shows us this isn't just going to tell us the story of Neil Armstrong; it is going to do everything it can to make us feel it. The blending of the way Sandgren shoots it, and the almost terrifying sound design disorients us. Despite all of that, these scenes are also able to establish a clear geography by using tricks like the sunlight or reflections in his helmet or, my favorite, the sonic booms of passing through each level of the atmosphere. It's really impressive.
Outside of the cockpit, the scenes of his wife, played masterfully by Claire Foy, and kids living a fairly normal life are some of the most pleasant in the film. We can tell just from the composition of the shots what life is like for Janet Armstrong and the kids at home, and when things start to sour, that pleasant feeling begins to leave the frame until we get to the final moments of Neil with his entire family together that just rips your heart out.
You see the unraveling happen with the “plugs out test” scene, an obviously unpleasant moment where the three men of Apollo 1 burn to death; the visual style of this movie becomes notably meaner for this section of the film. I remember recoiling in the theater the first time I saw it from the shock of how tragic this moment, that I knew was coming, was. When we see the shot of Pat White (Olivia Hamilton) standing at the foot of her driveway not long after the death of her husband Ed (Jason Clarke), it is shot almost like a horror movie, it's a deeply unsettling moment. This is all necessary to get to the emotional payoff Chazelle is heading towards.
The second major tool utilized alongside the inventive cinematography is Justin Hurwitz’s score, which tells as much of the story as anything. The music does a lot of the heavy lifting in the more personal sections of the film. Those pleasant moments with the family, the planning montages at NASA, the funerals, all of these moments use the score to beautifully establish how those in the scene are feeling. Hurwitz conveys everything as clear as day.
What's most fascinating about the use of music, however, is when it’s utilized; this movie is not scored from top to bottom. Most notably the “action” and launch sequences in the first two acts are completely devoid of score, save for the sound effects. This, in turn, helps us experience just a little bit of what Neil did in those moments. Also, interestingly, Neil has pleasant sounding music accompanying him when he is in space. When he's grounded the score never establishes him as happy, or even content, but in space he's where he should be.
There is one major moment in which Chazelle decides to score the action during the first two acts, and that’s during the Gemini 8 mission where Neil has to dock with the Agena target vehicle. There is a gorgeous piece of score under this scene that sounds like something out of a musical. The maneuvering Armstrong has to do in order to dock is a beautiful dance through space, and with Hurwitz’s score underneath it’s a breathtaking piece of filmmaking. When things go wrong shortly after this, and they have to undock, the score notably drops out again and we are back to the horror of the impeccable isolated sound design.
Chazelle sets up all of this visual and audible language, directing us to a clear emotional connection through two acts and then the moment Neil shows up at the launch pad for the Apollo 11 mission Chazelle immediately drops all of it. We start with a glorious wide shot of the rocket on the pad, illuminated from all sides, and from this moment forward First Man is a space epic about landing the first men on the moon. The rocket launch is stunning. We get camera angles we never thought we'd get before (which I'm sure helped this movie earn its sole Oscar win for Best Visual Effects), we see the clamps coming off, and the engines igniting. Finally, a stunning shot of a dark brown cloud that our rocket emerges from like a phoenix rising.
We all know how the story goes from here, so the movie doesn't bother trying to build tension or make you uneasy. By now we all know exactly what the cost was for Neil and those close to him to get to there. Now we just get to sit back and enjoy the spectacle of recreating the first Moon landing. By the time they touch down in the lunar lander, the score is swelling and the camera is having so much fun dazzling us over and over again that we almost forget how this all happened.
We are brought back to reality just before the end of the film when Neil wanders off to toss his own personal momento into a crater. It's a bracelet from his late daughter, whose death is the catalyst for everything we've witnessed. We see the death of his daughter early in the first act and it’s shortly after that Armstrong decides to apply for the Gemini missions, a job that gives his family a fresh start, at least in the eyes of Janet. As outside viewers of this story, we see that taking the Gemini missions and deciding to go into space wasn’t just about getting a fresh start, Neil may have had a bit of a death wish.
It's not clear at first, I don't think he even realizes it when he first takes the job, but by the end of the film, and after all of the loss he and his family have suffered, it is clear this man is pushing himself as far as he can. This becomes obvious shortly after the death of Ed White, Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), and Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith), when Neil practically kills himself in a test mission. Afterwards he exclaims, “We have to fail down here so we don't fail up there”. He is a man who has clearly been broken by the cost of this entire process and refuses to let it happen to anyone else, but if he has to die then so be it. We create stories of broken people taking themselves to the edge all the time and here Chazelle found maybe the greatest case of all in true American history.
Neil’s behavior becomes so destructive it starts to destroy his family. The film doesn't make it painfully obvious but it’s clear as Neil becomes more and more disconnected and Janet begins to have serious doubts. This comes to a beautifully heartbreaking conclusion when Janet and Neil have a blowout the night he leaves for the Apollo 11 mission, when he refuses to tell the kids he might not come home. It’s a powerful sequence of events that Foy owns entirely.
You know that even if he makes it back, his family is far from okay. In fact, we see this in the final shot of the movie, when Janet gets to see Neil for the first time since his return to Earth. What should be a joyous celebration is a somber and muted moment (a theme for Neil’s achievements throughout) in which they acknowledge the pain they have to deal with going forward.
Each of these parts are fascinating on their own but when they play into the big picture idea of First Man, how a man ends up being the first person on the Moon, it shows you a years’ long sequence of unlikely events that created a specific kind of person, a person who was driven enough to do whatever it takes to succeed. I’m not sure if any other man at NASA was prepared to die for this mission but according to this film, Neil Armstrong was at a point where he would have put everything on the line to succeed.
When asked why he thinks space travel is important, Neil essentially says that going to space will give us a new perspective and allow us to see new things, things that perhaps we should have seen a long time ago but couldn't. I think this is very much what Chazelle is doing with First Man. He's showing us the story from a new vantage point. Rather than give us the basic biography of the life of Neil Armstrong, he takes us to a new angle and tells a story of how a human being ended up with the drive to become the first person to step foot on the Moon.