First Man is a movie about the first man on the moon, but in a point of subversion to recent space-centric dramas, it’s decidedly about the man, not his final frontier. Damien Chazelle’s second outing with Ryan Gosling is an insular, claustrophobic narrative of the 10 years leading up to Neil Armstrong’s historic flight to and steps on the moon. It’s a testament to sacrifice and passion and the pursuit of knowledge, but above all else, it’s a personal snapshot that demonstrates how much tragedy can lie beneath the surface of achievement.
As Armstrong, Gosling is remote, isolated, frustratingly unreachable at times, but he also uses his eyes and subtle physicality to hint at the depths of pain underneath his single-minded pursuit of Apollo. We meet Neil as he and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), as they weather a child with cancer. For Neil, life is science and family, but he’s more comfortable in one of those orbits than the other. And if we feel his sacrifice, as he watches friends die and sweats out near misses in rickety spacecrafts, it’s somehow less surprising that what we come to understand of Janet’s existence. A balance of life that finds her husband as unreachable at home as he is when he’s jettisoned off into space. She’s left to listen to his fate on the radio time-and-time again and hold him together when he finally makes it back home.
There are challenges and sacrifice and history, and all of that is somehow only a slice of the life these two people are living together — First Man manages to somehow remind us that even though the vastness of space makes us feel small, our lives are anything but. Life is vast and unfair and when we least expect it, incredible.
First Man is lengthy, perhaps a bit too much so, and challenging to watch (Gosling makes sure of that, even as he’s doing great work), but it’s also effective. We all know the final destination here, but Chazelle still finds a way to make the muscles tense, to drive home the urgency and unlikeliness of what was happening and to make astonishing once again something that now feels almost commonplace.