The image that remains the most vivid in my memory since I saw Damien Chazelle’s brilliant Neil Armstrong biopic First Man almost a week ago comes early on in the picture. It, like much of the film, features a person in a metal enclosure undergoing a Herculean struggle that might kill them in the process. Unlike the rest of the film, which documents the many, many ways that a person can die in the process of attempting a Moon landing, the focus of this short scene is on Karen Armstrong, Neil (Ryan Gosling) and Janet’s (Claire Foy) youngest daughter as she undergoes X-Ray treatment in a cold and stark steel room for a tumor on her brain stem.
Armstrong, a loving father, is exceptionally close to the young girl, and her passing a few months after beginning treatment utterly devastates him. During her funeral, he sobs alone in his office, where he documented the minutiae of her treatments and explored other options for her, trying to solve an impossible problem. It’s this loss — and his grounding as a test pilot from the experimental aircraft company he worked for at the time of her death — that informs every action that follows: A grand expression of both pain and tribute by a person who knows no other way to express himself.
One can quickly see the reasons why Gosling was Chazelle’s first choice to play Armstrong, and they happen to sit right in the middle of his face. His baby-blue eyes are by far among the most expressive of any modern actor, and the way that his director is able to capture them communicates so much of the emotion that the character has walled off: They betray a deeply felt life, despite all of his attempts to conceal it. Take, for instance, the first time Armstrong breaks the surly bonds of Earth in a test aircraft at the start of the film, as he nearly flies into orbit after he loses control of his plane. It’s a moment where we should be focused on his predicament — he is about to float out into deep space, towards a cold and painful death — but his eyes are only partially grounded in the cockpit. We see the curvature of the Earth in all of its glory reflected in the visor of his spherical helmet, and his eyes are full of astonishment and wonder, a “space euphoria” that he himself doesn’t have the words to express. It’s this moment of odd joy in the midst of catastrophe that draws us into Armstrong’s story, and keeps us with him throughout the film as he endures countless on his fated pathways towards the moon.
This includes his closest friends in the Apollo Program, who will be felled by mechanical failure after mechanical failure — roasted alive by a cockpit during pre-launch testing, killed in plane crashes — of whose deaths Armstrong will be unable to properly mourn aside from throwing himself further and further into his work. Of course this continuing tragedy would have a depressing effect on other aspects of his life: he grows increasingly estranged from his family. Gosling and Foy make a believable, if tragic, coupling: Their relationship ebbs and flows as the joy is sucked out of Neil’s life, and their reunion at film’s end is about as upsetting as it is comforting. Because of his efforts, Armstrong becomes the gruff and focused man that we all known — when asked what personal effects he’d want to carry to the Moon, he simply replies that he wishes they could carry more fuel — and he lets the charismatic but dickish Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) take over the PR campaign on the way towards launch. More on this response in a bit, though.
If there’s one thing that Chazelle excels at over Philip Kaufmann (who captured the optimism of the early space race perfectly in The Right Stuff) and Ron Howard (whose Apollo 13 documented ingenuity and bravery in the face of overwhelming odds), it’s portraying the hellish nature of spaceflight, how quickly and painfully it could go terribly wrong and how there might not be a single thing one could do about it. The prepared address that President Nixon was to read if the Apollo 8 mission was a failure is prominently featured, and that risk takes a toll on the culture psychically as well (echoed by a Gil-Scott Heron performance about the financial cost of the space race and where that money could be headed to otherwise).
You may not encounter a sequence in popular cinema this year as emotionally harrowing as the Gemini 8 mission as its depicted here, in which Armstrong and fellow astronaut David Scott (Christopher Abbott) are nearly killed by a computer malfunction. It ultimately leads their capsule to spin uncontrollably, and Chazelle emphasizes how close the situation is to slipping out of the astronauts’ hands and destroying everything they’ve worked for. Chazelle keeps us trapped in the cockpit with these two men as we see the dizzying effects of the spin wreak havoc upon them. It’s only through Armstrong’s perseverance and training that they’re able to pull out of it, but Chazelle and Cinematographer Linus Sandgren emphasize just how tight and scary this situation was.
As my friend Noel Murray pointed out on Twitter, First Man is a film about fragility, emotionally and physically, but it’s also about the Sisyphean nature of human advancement, as echoed in the often-quoted rarely grasped JFK speech that’s played as Chazelle winds his film to a close, and what motivates people to do great things. We do these things because they must be done, because no great accomplishment comes without painful sacrifice and the sweat and labor of hundreds upon thousands of committed men and women, but we also do them to pay tribute to the people whose lives — absent or not — have affected us enough to push us to do the impossible.
There’s a moment on the Moon, when Armstrong and Aldrin have done their hopping around and their observation, where Neil takes a brief moment to leave something behind, a private gesture that was nearly plundered by reporters asking a question. It means much more to him than an American flag (that manufactured controversy may be the single dumbest thing our sick culture has manifested this year), and it’s a moment, coupled with the swell of Justin Hurwitz’s incredible score, that brought me to tears; perhaps the ultimate act of small remembrance preserved forever in the midst of one of the grandest moments of the entire human experiment. A second viewing of the film may confirm it to be Chazelle’s masterpiece, but as far as I’m concerned at the moment, First Man is one of the best films of 2018.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of TIFF.