The Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) of Damian Chazelle’s First Man doesn’t utter the line “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” out of humanity or loyalty to his country. He says it out of defeat. A litany of children, men, and women that came within orbit of Armstrong have passed, and in them a crater-sized lesion has all but eaten away at the astronaut. From Armstrong’s vantage point, the tentativeness of life takes on a whole different meaning when you’ve lost, and continue to lose, everyone that means anything to you. The fleeting image of Armstrong running his fingers through the hair of his now dead daughter haunts him, and when asked during his job interview with NASA if her recent death will affect him, Armstrong firmly remarks that it obviously will. Later in the film, while going for a walk with NASA colleague Edward Higgins White (Jason Clarke), White suggests how lonely it must be on the moon. Armstrong, stoic and despondent, doesn’t so much reply as simply mention how they’ve passed by a swing that reminded him of his daughter. It’s the first time he’s mentioned her to anyone since her passing. And it’s the last time we see Armstrong and White talk – the shadow cast by his daughter’s death consuming everything around him.
Chazelle’s preoccupation with sacrifice, whether it be the abuse withstood in Whiplash or giving up love in La La Land, have toed a difficult line in advocating for that sacrifice and embellishing its merit. Is it all worth it? With First Man, the question is expounded from an individual to that of an entire country, where Chazelle makes frequent mention of growing antagonism towards the space program, a growing public critical of tax dollars being spent to send white men into space. But the weight of those concerns are shouldered by Armstrong, whose comic seriousness during press conferences for NASA comes across as a welcome relief given our modern media spectacles (Buzz Aldrin, played by Corey Stoll, offers those helpful sound bites that undoubtedly helped contribute to his enduring legacy). Armstrong remains indebted to the mission, with the memory of his past an encumbrance, anticipating anything other than his ambition superfluous.
Like Chazelle’s previous films, I found First Man to rely too extensively on the strength of his performers. Chazelle’s formal ambitions have this tendency to be obstacles in itself, as First Man formally recalls the work of Stan Brakhage, John Cassavetes, Terrence Malick, Christopher Nolan, and Steven Spielberg. The combination produces a handful of memorable images, but the overarching sense you get is one of muddled confusion, a director that mistakes rapid, close-up steady-cam shots with immersion, visual ambiguity for profundity. His standby editor Tom Cross, whose work in Whiplash and passages of La La Land was the best aspect of both those films, doesn’t help matters much, with the film’s sloppy opening sequence boiling down to the static of flipping switches and close-ups of Armstrong breathing heavily.
Another cloying aspect of the film comes from Claire Foy’s paradoxically thankless yet underwritten role as Armstrong’s wife, Janet. Her scenes tend to precipitate Chazelle’s frequent swooning camera movements à la Malick. But Malick’s stylistic approach rendered Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life or Olga Kurylenko in To the Wonder as less than quote unquote characters and more as pneumas; a kind of intangible, ephemeral vessel of compassion. Chazelle, meanwhile, relies on Foy as a narrative figurehead, both attempting to spiritualize her presence while also interjecting her into the plot. It comes across as terribly clumsy and inconsistent, even as Foy makes the best of these scenes.
The inelegant, uncomplimentary components that make up First Man simmer down to rivaling ideologies about filmmaking. There’s the aforementioned poeticism of Malick’s flourishes, along with probing honesty that comes with close-ups akin to Cassavetes. But there are also these jingoistic, strained attempts at uplift that I tend to associate with Spielberg. The moon landing sequence in particular is compromised by Justin Hurwitz’ rendition of a John Williams score. Compounded by the clinical performances of the cast that recall Christopher Nolan’s filmography and you have a scattershot examination on loneliness and American exceptionalism that can sometimes be thoughtful, sometimes dull, but mostly feels hollow.