Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
Over the course of his short but already notable career, director Damien Chazelle has shown a penchant for stripping away romanticized idealism to expose the more honest, human truths hidden underneath. Whiplash is the story of an incredibly talented musician who realizes his potential, not due to feel-good monologues or platitudes about trying his best, but because he’s under the tutelage of a sociopathic teacher. La La Land, which earned Chazelle an Academy Award for Best Director, told the tale of two star-crossed lovers in the style of a nostalgic, classic Hollywood musical — only to deny the characters the storybook happy ending that both the characters and the audience were expecting. Chazelle likes to tackle genres and scenarios that we often view through rose-colored glasses and then smash those glasses to pieces.
He uses that same tactic in his latest film First Man. The story of astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and the incredible effort it took to land him and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) on the Moon in 1969, the film disposes with the heroic mythologizing that’s so regularly utilized in film portrayals of NASA and America’s space program. Instead, it tells an incredibly small story — Armstrong’s struggle to cope with the death of his young daughter — and places it within the context of one of the most astonishing accomplishments in human history. It’s a feat, the film stresses, that was pulled off not by larger-than-life figures, but by groups of ordinary people who each paid an incredible cost.
It’s a breathtaking piece of filmmaking that’s filled with some of the most intense portrayals of spaceflight ever put on-screen. But for all its technical wonder, First Man’s focus on Armstrong’s relentless stoicism ends up feeling more like a hindrance than a revelation. It’s an epic, ambitious film, but it ends just shy of true greatness.
What’s the genre?
It’s a space exploration biopic that documents Armstrong’s family life in equal measure with the numerous breakthroughs, mistakes, and tragedies NASA experienced over the course of the Gemini and Apollo missions.
What’s it about?
First Man opens in the early 1960s, with Armstrong working as an experimental test pilot, flying the rocket-powered X-15 to the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere. In the harrowing sequence, Armstrong is unable to descend, bouncing off the atmosphere until it seems like he’s in danger of floating off into space entirely. He’s able to resolve the situation, however, and lands safely. Back on the ground, Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are worried about their young daughter Karen who is suffering from a brain tumor. Armstrong is an engineer by trade, analytical and data-oriented, and he seems to view Karen’s illness as a problem to be solved. She eventually passes away, and in the hopes of making a fresh start, Armstrong applies and is accepted into NASA’s Gemini program.
The film then follows Armstrong’s experience within the project, from his training and the early Gemini missions to the Apollo program and the larger mission to reach the Moon. The film is painstakingly detailed in covering all aspects of the NASA missions, but just as much time is spent on documenting Armstrong’s family and the emotional fallout over the years. When team member and friend Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) is killed in a plane crash, Armstrong becomes withdrawn and non-communicative. When three astronauts, including Ed White (Jason Clarke) and Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), are killed in a fire during a test for the Apollo 1 mission, Janet becomes even more alarmed about the human cost of the program — a cost that Armstrong, still unable to grapple with losing his daughter, nearly refuses to acknowledge at all. The tensions come to a head as Armstrong prepares for Apollo 11, the mission that will eventually land him on the Moon.
What’s it really about?
While First Man is a fascinating look at NASA and the Gemini and Apollo programs, Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer — who adapted James R. Hansen’s biography of the same name — are really interested in the pressure these grand accomplishments place upon the families of those involved. Armstrong is shown as a warm, loving father, but Karen’s death shuts him down. And while he has moments of lightness and joy with his sons Rick (Luke Winters) and Mark (Connor Blodgett), the work always seems to come first. He would rather shut Janet and the rest of his family out completely than acknowledge the real possibility that he might not come home from one of his missions. The specter of death is always there for Janet, whether through her interactions with Ed White’s widow (Olivia Hamilton) or the scrapes and bruises her husband comes home with after an accident with a lunar landing vehicle simulator.
Everyone within NASA seems to look ahead with the hubris that they can always solve the next problem, no matter how large, and it’s left to the families of the astronauts to call out exactly what’s at stake. “You’re a bunch of boys,” Janet tells Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), the director of flight crew operations, while her husband is in a perilous situation during the Gemini 8 mission. “You don’t have anything under control.” It’s a direct repudiation of the swaggering personas in movies like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, and it underscores a point that’s rarely discussed when the space program is portrayed in popular culture: when tragedy strikes, the larger program may continue, but the families who lose loved ones are permanently affected.
Is it good?
Chazelle has made an impeccably crafted film, so finely detailed and shot through with danger and menace that it often feels like this is the first time the realities of the 1960s space program have been accurately portrayed. The opening X-15 flights kick things off. It isn’t some hotshot bit of piloting designed to impress the audience with the lead character’s skills; Armstrong almost dies in the first minutes of First Man, and his situation doesn’t get any safer from there. Chazelle and his collaborators are intent on conveying the risk in space exploration in a way that feels immediate and real. Part of it is the events they choose to highlight: more things in First Man go wrong than right. But it’s also the way the film dwells on the ramifications of those failures, like the moments with Janet and the other wives or the way Armstrong has to rush out of a friend’s funeral reception because he simply can’t cope. Then there’s the cinematic execution of the space sequences.
It never feels like Armstrong and the other astronauts are riding around in state-of-the-art spacecraft that are impervious to harm. These vehicles groan and creak and shudder in unsettling ways. The simplest things go wrong at the most inopportune times. Spaceflight, First Man emphasizes, is messy and dangerous, and assuming that humanity has mastered any of it is the height of arrogance.
The production design is stunning across the board, re-creating not just the familiar Mission Control center, but things like the primitive multi-axis trailer and the intricate details of the Gemini space capsule. Chazelle and director of photography Linus Sandgren mix 16mm and 35mm film stocks for a grainy look that feels more like a period documentary than a modern-day biopic. It’s undeniably effective. They move to native IMAX footage when Armstrong finally goes to the lunar surface. It’s a tremendously clever use of the format: the change in detail, scope, and aspect ratio convey just how otherworldly and transformative stepping onto the surface of the Moon actually was. The transition is a magical moment. Viewers should seek out the film in proper IMAX presentation above all other possible formats.
But as detailed and thought-out as the visual presentation and mission sequences are, at times, it does feel like the lead character isn’t entirely realized. It’s not Gosling’s performance; he’s empathetic and watchable in the role, playing Armstrong as a man who dislikes ego and the spotlight and would rather sit down, focus, and do the work necessary to get the job done rather than talk about it. The emotional throughline of the character is where the film falls short. The death of Armstrong’s daughter is presented as an inciting incident that encourages him to join the space program, and he ultimately does have a moment of catharsis before the film is over. But Armstrong’s nature makes the story frustrating at times: he’s so stoic and reserved that it can be hard for the audience to engage with him. The space sequences and supporting cast are more than enough to carry the movie, but this film is clearly presented as Armstrong’s story. The fact that his emotional journey doesn’t feel fully articulated does hinder the film — especially since the entire point of the story is the human cost of space exploration. It leaves the audience with the feeling of watching an incredible historical document but perhaps not a perfectly engaging narrative.
What should it be rated?
The official rating is PG-13, and that sounds about right. There are deaths, language, and more nerve-rattling tension than anybody under 13 should deal with.
How can I actually watch it?
First Man opens in theaters on October 12th. (And I really wasn’t joking about IMAX earlier. Seek it out in a 1.43 IMAX presentation at all costs.)