Damien Chazelle has come a long way from his first feature film, the no-budget hipster indie musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (it’s in black and white, for Pete’s sake). Like Scorsese with Leonardo DiCaprio, he’s also struck up a bit of a creative partnership (and one imagines a friendship) with Ryan Gosling, who sang and danced his way through La La Land, the musical perhaps best known for losing Best Picture to Moonlight. Chazelle, however, did win Best Director that year, and with each new film he puts his name on, we’re witness to an artistic evolution of a filmmaker gaining both confidence and skill as he goes.
First Man, based on a biography by James R. Hansen, stars Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong, the man who would be the first to walk on the moon. And yet Chazelle manages to chronicle a significant portion of Armstrong’s life leading up to that historical moment, as the film is much more concerned with the internal journey of an ordinary man who finds himself in (and rises to) extraordinary circumstances. We meet Armstrong and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy, The Crown), just as they lose their young daughter, the grief of this devastating moment as piercing as it is poignant.
Recounting this deeply personal sequence at the outset sets the stage for what’s ahead; by focusing his lens so tightly on Armstrong (and Goslings cool, disciplined portrayal of him), Chazelle ensures a film infinitely more interesting than a rehash of history. Whether its waiting in the lobby for his name to be called during his application to the Space Program or walking away from a test flight gone bad, an aircraft in flames behind him, Armstrong is always in control, always the center of a saga, though much bigger than him or any one man (or woman), irrefutably driven by his dedication to success.
That’s not to say Chazelle doesn’t indulge in the wonder that is a group of mere mortals with the gumption to think they can leave this earth and explore the heavens. An impressive cast of character actors (Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll) appear as the crew, pilots and engineers who make the whole thing possible, and just like Apollo 13 before it, you’ll find yourself swept up in the brazen possibility of it all, the trials and triumphs, the costs and the payoffs.
By the time the narrative leads us to that pivotal moment, we’ve witnessed the sequence of events—both anticipated and accidental—that put Armstrong in the position to take that first step heard ’round the world. And unlike Apollo 13 and others before it, First Man doesn’t sugarcoat the arduous journey, spotted as it is along the way with debilitating doubt (both internal and external) and even loss of life. Chazelle isn’t concerned with telling a patriotic story, even if it happens to be one by default.
As grand as it all is, with rocket launch sequences so visceral your teeth will shake in their sockets, Chazelle’s real accomplishment here is the intimacy with which he recounts the life of the man responsible for a moment the whole world remembers. In the end, this is not the story of the U.S. space program or even of the all the men and women involved in making Apollo 11 a success.
This is Armstrong’s story, and the film’s fixation on his most personal moments—his motivations, successes, failures and vulnerability—with such tenderness is what turns humankind’s monumental achievement into a strikingly approachable account of greatness.