by Rob DiCristino
Manned space flight is an awe-inspiring enterprise. Wielding nothing but rocket fuel and mathematics, physicists and engineers pierce holes in the heavens, touching the face of God and searching for new frontiers beyond the boundaries of our imagination. For sixty years, the American space program has been a miracle of innovation and a bastion of patriotism. Its exploits have not only united us as a nation, but they’ve more than once brought us inches away from true fraternity with our fellow human beings around the world. Their achievements are remarkable, their innovations essential. Hell, without the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, we wouldn’t have LEDs, CAT scans, running shoes, memory foam, baby formula, or artificial limbs. We’d have no space shuttle, no Mars rover, no Hubble telescope. Most importantly, we’d know next to nothing about the massive, sprawling universe we’re hurtling through at breakneck speed.
La La Land) and screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) focus instead on the internal battles, the journeys that stretch the distance between a father and his child, between a husband and his wife, and between a man and his soul. This isn’t the story of an American hero triumphantly smashing a red, white, and blue flag into the surface of a quivering space rock (sorry, Fox News); this is the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), a brilliant but withdrawn engineer still reeling from the sudden death of his young daughter and terrified that a trip to the moon is the last thing his marriage (to Claire Foy as Janet) needs.
First Man opens with test pilot Armstrong mid-flight in an experimental aircraft designed to gather data at the edge of space. Pushing through the clouds as the frame shudders and buckles around us, Armstrong discovers that he’s gone too far; he’s sliced through the earth’s atmosphere and — through mysteries of science still foreign to many of us — can’t cross back over. He bounces violently off the invisible barrier, helplessly flipping switches and slamming control mechanisms in the hopes of making just the right adjustment to stop from ricocheting into permanent oblivion. It’s a powerful metaphor foreshadowing the emotional struggles to come. Though he does bring the craft in safely, NASA sees the troubled flight as evidence that Armstrong is too distracted by his daughter Karen’s cancer diagnosis to fly. It’s true that his research is meticulous and time-consuming. It’s true that, in light of the emergency, Armstrong’s attention may not be on the Gemini program or beating the Soviets to the moon.
Armstrong and his Apollo 11 crew (Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin and Lukas Haas as Michael Collins) make it to the moon, of course, but Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz do not present this defining accomplishment in American history as a bombastic orgy of celebration. They do not cut to the exalted cheers of mission controllers, nor do they frame-up a low-angle hero shot of the lunar lander touching down on the pale white powder. The landing sequence is claustrophobic, intimate. The score is droning, haunting, and repetitive. This is not Apollo 13. This is not America’s victory. Nor yours. Nor mine. This is one small step along Armstrong’s solemn, private road to recovery. As Buzz Aldrin skips across the lunar surface with all the childlike wonder befitting his magnificent achievement, Armstrong stalks along silently toward the edge of a massive crater. He checks his surroundings, making sure this is the right place, and drops his daughter’s bracelet into the endless darkness.