A course correction is in order. After a recent screening of “First Man,” the new Damien Chazelle film about the 1969 moon landing, a theatergoer was heard to say to his companion, “It was no ‘Right Stuff.’” This was offered as neither condemnation nor praise but rather as mild confusion.
It’s understandable. We think we know what we’ll get from the Neil Armstrong story, and that’s epic wide-screen heroism. But “First Man” plays a different and arguably more rewarding game, one that looks for the man behind the hero. It’s a movie that shows how the most personal moments can coexist within and alongside the most momentous events. It’s a film that insists history is made from private lives.
In addition, “First Man” is a story of triumphant scientific achievement that doubles as a tale stalked by death. That itself is a corrective to the casual cultural belief, a half century on, that the Apollo missions and the NASA endeavors leading up to them somehow “just happened” without terrific effort and terrible loss.
Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong as a prototypical man of his generation, his emotions barely peeking through a tightly buttoned-up exterior. The film hews so closely to his point of view that it often feels as though Chazelle, the confident kid genius of “Whiplash” and “La La Land,” has parked his cameras behind Armstrong’s eyeballs. “First Man” is the director’s least show-offy work to date, but the opening X-15 flight, in which the future astronaut soars above Earth and bounces alarmingly along the surface of our atmosphere, is still a thrown gauntlet of you-are-there filmmaking.
But so are the awful ensuing sequences of Neil and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), contending with the illness of their 2-year-old daughter, Karen (Lucy Stafford). Science in “First Man” might send us to the moon but it can’t save a child from a tumor, and that early death, and Armstrong’s fiercely private grief, anchor the film and set its emotional and historical stakes. There will be more losses, some you may remember from headlines if you were around, and others you never knew about. The movie wants to remind us that what these men did was dangerous.
Actually, what these men did was insane. A mere 60 years after humans first took flight, and in an attempt to jump far past the Soviets and their Earth-orbiting satellites, NASA decided to send men 230,000 miles to the nearest rock. Before the Apollo flights, they had to use the Gemini missions to test whether the journey and the complicated docking procedures above the lunar surface were even feasible.
We meet the military pilots and civilian engineers who make up the NASA team, led by Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) and grizzled space-race vet Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham). We see Armstrong and fellow astronauts Ed White (Jason Clarke), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit), Mike Collins (Lukas Haas), Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber), and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) go through the gyroscopic training and initial flights. We come to understand that when the men are strapped into the nose cone above a giant tube of rocket fuel, they’re literally sitting on top of a bomb.
On the surface, they’re all as bland and professional as Armstrong, which makes the moments of anxiety that leak out seem much more powerful. (The exception is Stoll’s obnoxiously loud-mouthed Aldrin, a brash yin to Armstrong’s repressed yang.) But Chazelle is just as interested in what his heroes are feeling as in where they’re heading, and he uses their home lives as a way in. Janet Armstrong is effectively the chief supporting character in “First Man,” and Foy (“The Crown”) is the electric current the movie needs. Jan is tart and jaybird sharp, proud of her husband but nervous with the knowledge that the astronauts are “a bunch of boys playing with balsawood models.” She understands that nobody knows anything.
The script by Josh Singer (“Spotlight”) is effective both for what the characters say and what they don’t. It’s Jan who forces Neil to sit down and prepare their young sons (Luke Winters and Connor Blodgett) for the possibility he may not return from the Apollo 11 flight. It’s Jan who’s the link to the other wives and children that the movie captures with the fluid grace of a summer evening outdoors. And it’s Jan who has the television tuned to the real world, where the war in Vietnam rages and students march in anger and the moon landing is seen as a waste of money in an America riven by poverty and protest.
That outside world largely stays outside, though, and some audiences may want more of it. “First Man” is a movie made of close-ups, focused on capturing the intimacies of these people’s lives and the intensity with which its heroes hammer at the problem before them. And gradually the scope opens up onto the universe. Chazelle plays games with film stock, shooting on grainy 16mm for the most private moments, on 35mm for the bulk of the film, and widening out into crystalline IMAX film when the Lunar Excursion Module’s hatchway reveals the surface of the moon.
That scene is, appropriately, an unprecedented historical achievement and a stunning movie moment, like Dorothy stepping from black-and-white Kansas into a Technicolor Oz. It deserves to be seen on the largest canvas possible. (In addition to regular screens, “First Man” is playing at Jordan’s IMAX theaters.) The film’s lunar climax is heartstopping in its suspense and quietly immense in its resolution, with one dramatic touch that will either move you to tears or strike you as a sentimental invention.
More subtly, the sheer desolation of the movie’s lunar surface — the unvarying gray rubble captured with granular realism — prompts the heretical notion that maybe there’s nothing of value up there, and that everything that matters, both to Neil Armstrong and to us, is actually back home. There’s been an inane controversy over whether “First Man” is “patriotic enough” since it only shows the US flag flying on the moon but doesn’t dramatize its planting. That news-cycle nonsense utterly misses the point Chazelle and Singer are making, which is that the moon landing was humanity’s triumph as much as one nation’s.
Neil Armstrong made a giant leap for mankind, remember? It’s the movie’s achievement to show us the man who took the small step, and all the other men, women, and children around him.
★ ★ ★ ½
Directed by Damien Chazelle. Written by Josh Singer, based on the book by James R. Hansen. Starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll. At Boston theaters, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX Reading and Natick. 132 minutes. PG-13 (mature thematic elements, some violent content, drug material, language).