First Man opens with an enthralling sequence in which a young Neil Armstrong makes a perilous ascent into the outer atmosphere as an X-15 test pilot. Through a torrent of environmental interference, after struggling with equipment that seems destined to fail him, Armstrong stabilizes his aircraft and breaks through to the edge of the atmosphere. In those few solitary moments, we witness nirvana in his eyes, the tips of the clouds reflecting peace and euphoria, a moment of heaven at the end of a hellish flight. The descent is even more treacherous than the journey up, but the experience of touching the cosmos, the actualization of a dream, is what Armstrong was chasing.
Armstrong’s eyes function as a screen onto which the entire film is projected. Every event, every sequence, every moment plays through the prism of a man who was not merely the primary actor in his own life, but also the primary observer. Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong as one who is always looking, always seeking, always processing. He bears witness to the world and the audience bears witness to him. Such a narrative framework creates a purposeful disconnect between character and viewer; he is not an audience proxy, but an observer who is also being observed. In First Man, Armstrong is one whose laser focus on touching the universe keeps him at arm’s length from the people in his immediate sphere. The film invites us to share in both his fixated wonder and their futile frustration.
In a still-young career, director Damien Chazelle has already established himself as an auteur of dreams and dreamers, of obsessions and obsessives. First Man both fits that mold and breaks it, telling a story of a man whose passion was enacted dispassionately, whose personal tragedies spurred his professional successes, whose broken humanity resulted in mankind’s giant leap. Was reaching the Moon an end goal for Armstrong? Perhaps, but it was more of a milestone that transpired in this man’s ongoing journey into the universe he was always seeking but could never fully grasp. For Armstrong, who dreamed of becoming a pilot since he was six years old, the only true goal was to take flight in the midst of a life that kept grounding him.
Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer frame this story in stark societal terms. Armstrong joined the space program at a time of experimentation, and the experiments were costly and dangerous. Death became a leitmotif of the space race, as one mission after another resulted in tragedy. NASA’s failures eroded public confidence and some political support, prompting activism as minority communities languished while funds continued to be funneled into a space program with ambitious goals but reckless execution. “We’ve got this under control,” a chief NASA officer tells Neil’s wife, Janet (Claire Foy), after one of Neil’s near-death experiences. “You’re just a bunch of boys,” she replies. “You don’t have anything under control.”
The notion of control is central to how Armstrong operates, precisely because of events over which he had none. Early in the film, his two-year-old daughter dies of a brain tumor. After her funeral, Neil retreats to his home office and unloads months’ worth of tears in an extraordinary outpouring of emotion. It’s the last time we ever witness such external emotion from the man, whose legendary icy calm, the film posits, was in part the result of this crippling emotional event. When he could no longer cure his daughter, he shifted his focus to curing the space program. The deaths of his comrades add heavier weight to his soul, which in turn further spurs his drive to actualize a successful mission into space. That drive allows him to excel professionally but also slowly torpedoes his personal life. Armstrong is inscrutable even to Janet, who loves him but lives with the reality that a part of him has drifted away. He is also, with increasing frequency, inscrutable to the audience, a purposeful narrative and thematic strategy of this very insular character study, the exacting execution of which sometimes hinders our engagement. Gosling is an actor sometimes charged with being too cool for school, and indeed, his performance here is one of such minute subtleties that sometimes it barely registers. But that is the character First Man is chasing – the unknowable genius, the reclusive icon, the stubbornly obsessed protagonist.
Chazelle is a consummate filmmaker, and what he achieves on a technical level is magnificent. Working in tandem with his cadre of Oscar-winning collaborators – cinematographer Linus Sandgren, editor Tom Cross, and composer Justin Hurwitz among them – Chazelle brings rattling, riveting life to a sequences that highlight the stunning convergence of the wonder of the cosmos, the resilience of the human will, and the lethal dangers of man-made machinery. And yet for all this wondrous cinema, First Man is a film of a melancholy text, of obsession compelled by tragedy, of privileged men chasing aspiration at the expense of the struggling masses. All flickered through Neil Armstrong’s eyes, which are both his window and his shuttered door – we see him, we marvel at him, but he remains out of reach.