Chazelle does not shy away from the horror that lurks around the corners at NASA as pressure mounts to fulfill President Kennedy’s charter to reach the moon by the end of the decade.
Damien Chazelle lays out his approach to the moon race of the 1960s from the first scene of First Man, which involves not a spaceflight but a high-altitude X-15 jet test flight piloted by Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling). As the camera darts in and out of the cockpit, we see how precariously the aircraft holds together as it reaches supersonic speeds and climbs closer and closer to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere. Suddenly, things go wrong. Instrument panels light up and spin madly as mission control barks commands and questions into Armstrong’s ear as the man himself remains silent but for the amplified breathing. The shuddering of the jet comes to a halt when the aircraft stalls out and freezes at the edge of the stratosphere, only for the altimeter to start ticking upward as if the plane might be escaping into space. Armstrong, of course, makes it back down in one piece, but in a few minutes we are given a view of aerospace research and exploration as a feat of bravery bordering on pure recklessness.
The same claustrophobic, tense direction extends to later NASA missions as Armstrong is recruited as a possible moon mission commander. A sense of overwhelming danger creeps into training, tests and preparatory orbital flights, and death hangs over the pilots. As Armstrong’s wife, Janet (Claire Foy), says at one point to a friend, one year Neil lost four friends to crashes, wearily remarking, “We got really good at funerals that year.” Chazelle does not shy away from the horror that lurks around the corners at NASA as pressure mounts to fulfill President Kennedy’s charter to reach the moon by the end of the decade. The Apollo 1 disaster is handled with a brutality that impressively manages to be somewhat tasteful, not overplaying the dramatic irony leading up to the disastrous capsule test that claimed the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee and rushing through the resulting electrical fire and oxygen-rich explosion to match the speed with which things went wrong. The swift, brutal cut-off of communication from within the cockpit and the sudden, groaning distension of the capsule door say everything about the nightmare within the vessel.
In the film’s best scene, Armstrong leads the Gemini 8 mission to test orbital docking. Chazelle keeps the camera inside the capsule cockpit for nearly the entirety of the sequence, giving the audience a feel for the cramped quarters shared by Armstrong and David Scott (Christopher Abbott), as well as details like the craft’s viewport, a tiny, slanted pane placed above the men and offering only a sliver of a view outside the cabin. When the docking goes awry and sends the capsule into an endless rotation, the spinning motion obliterates any sense of place even within the finite dimensions of the spacecraft. All the while, metal creaks and bolts rattle as if they might launch out from position and ping around the cabin, abruptly recasting a feat of contemporary engineering as a rickety hunk of metal hurling through the void. To make matters even more dizzyingly unnerving, Armstrong must balance his attempts to stabilize the capsule with longhand trigonometric calculations to get the craft back on an orbital path, a reminder that these men were engineers as much as pilots and had to keep track of advanced mathematics while flying.
The intense danger of the supersonic flight and space programs clearly gets to Neil, and Gosling settles into the glum, somber mode that has characterized so many of his attempts at serious drama. Yet the actor’s performance arguably suits Armstrong better than it does the likes of Drive’s protagonist as so much of Armstrong’s trauma is foregrounded by the film’s acknowledgment of both the terror he’s experienced and the grief of losing so many friends to accidents. Armstrong in this view is a tragic figure more than a gutsy hero, and his mental health is so frazzled he can barely speak to friends or even his wife and children. Gosling’s insular trauma contrasts with Foy’s portrayal of Janet’s socially limited freedom. Like many wives in biopics, Janet has little more to do than be supportive and concerned in equal measure, but Foy and the film foreground this hampered life. In a great scene, the film cross-cuts between Neil arriving at NASA and beginning his training and Janet performing the domestic duties of greeting their new neighbors, plastering on a smile as strangers come around with equally perfunctory cheer. Her job may not involve the threat of death, but one can already see how she is primed to be her husband’s de facto, and unpaid, spokesperson. Only once in the film does Janet get to express herself without self-consciousness, when she refuses to be the one to explain to her children that their father might not return from the moon.
The Apollo 11 mission naturally forms the climax of First Man, though Chazelle wisely eschews placing all of the emphasis on the landing and Armstrong’s famous words. Instead, he orients the last act around the sheer, massive feat of venturing so far from Earth. Much has been written about how profoundly affected the Apollo astronauts were by the experience of standing on another orb in space and looking back at an Earth they could reach up and cup in their hands. Chazelle films the Apollo 11 mission with occasional cutaways to the silent maw of space, including one unnerving shot of the capsule disappearing into inky blackness as the moon shadows them from the sun. Perhaps, in the film’s tacit suggestion, the astronauts came back so different not merely out of a poetic grasp of our true, minuscule scale in the cosmos but also as a result of the cumulative trauma of making such a harrowing journey into the unknown and inhospitable. As such, the film’s true climax may not be Armstrong setting foot on the moon but the moment after landing in which the capsule door is opened and the film’s near-constant score of groaning, jangling metal, warning sirens and hissing air immediately gives way to the total silence of space, as eerie as it is calming.