I don’t think we ever get to know Neil Armstrong in “First Man”, but I don’t think you’re supposed to. This isn’t a criticism of the film, rather it works as a strength. The film doesn’t try to understand Armstrong, or why he seemed so compelled to walk on the moon, but it does try to engage him as an interesting character study of someone who could not express himself, or at least didn’t know how to.
“First Man” tells the story Armstrong’s nearly decade long ascent in the world of NASA culminating with his immortal first steps on the lunar surface. We see him early on as a test pilot, who reaches the heights of Earth’s atmosphere without actually making it into space. He pauses for a moment to take in the majesty of his surroundings, but as the film shows, Armstrong is a pretty clinical guy who doesn’t lose sight of his main objectives, which is to finish his mission.
In his home life, Neil is a caring husband and father, but early on, tragedy strikes when with the death of his young daughter. It hits him in a way it would any loving father, but Neil takes special precautions to hide his emotions. At her funeral, he locks himself in a room, covering the blinds so he can take this moment to cry, it’s the only moment the film gives for him to convey such outward emotion.
The film treats the death of his daughter as a catalyst for him to join NASA’s Gemini program, which is designed to train pilots and test them for the eventual Apollo missions to the moon. We see the rigorous preparation Neil and the other Astronauts are assigned as each new mission brings other challenges, as well as more casualties in the process. Death surrounds much of the failed missions, as friends of Neil die in unfortunate mishaps, and we see how this does (or doesn’t) effect his overall demeanor.
With this film, co-writer, and director Damien Chazelle seems to have two objectives in mind. One is to give a complete visceral, and memorable experience of what it feels like to be inside the cockpit of a NASA rocket. As viewers, we feel the claustrophobia of the astronauts, as they deal with the shaky rattling of such an enclosed area. It might be the same feeling of being a rag doll strapped inside a tin can. The sound design is tremendous with these sequences, and composer Justin Hurwitz adds to the experience with a score that can add to the intensity, but also complement the intimacy. The actual moon landing is a masterpiece of all of these tools working in unison giving a breathtaking experience. It’s safe to say it would be a crime not to see this film on the biggest screen you can find.
The second objective is to try to depict truthfully, a rather impenetrable person such as Neil Armstrong. I have read criticisms of the film saying Armstrong is not a very interesting character, and comes off as rather boring. I found him to be completely fascinating, in the way that he remains so passive. This reading may sound contradictory, but Chazelle seems to understand he could only define Armstrong through his actions, rather than seeing what makes him tick.
There are moments where we see Neil almost opening up, and wanting to defy his instincts of staying hidden, and I found these moments to be the most heartbreaking. Ryan Gosling is perfectly cast to play such a character, especially with his unique, subtle acting style. I find myself leaning in more when I watch a Gosling performance, I’m not using hyperbole when I say he’s one of the most nuanced film actors ever to grace the screen. Every glance, with his eyes, or tilt of his head is like a cue from Gosling to invite us into what he is thinking. How could one say Armstrong is a boring character when Gosling’s interpretation speaks so many volumes?
However in the end Armstrong remains an anomaly, Chazelle often frames him in ways where he is cut off from other people. Sometimes it’s behind a screen door when his son invites him to play, or it’s behind a pane of glass which separates him from his wife (Clair Foy). Even when he’s on the moon, his helmet visor becomes extra protection, so we can’t see his face, and he’s careful to lower it to hide his tears.
It’s easy to criticize a person who seems to be embarrassed of their feelings the way Armstrong was. There have been deconstructions of this type of character in our modern world, and we have learned it is unhealthy to keep our emotions buried. Watching this film, I felt sadness in the fact that Neil Armstrong was able to accomplish what very few people did; he faced insurmountable personal and professional tragedy, he overcame unspeakable odds, and became the hero of a nation, yet despite all of this, he remains unknown to us.
4 Stars out of 4