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‘First Man’: The Biggest Quiet Movie Ever Made

It was a no-brainer: Ryan Gosling landing on the moon, directed by the genius filmmaker behind ‘La La Land.’ But there’s never been a more realistic, emotionally withholding awards contender than Damien Chazelle’s portrait of Neil Armstrong. Can a technically magnificent but taciturn film transcend its noisy atmosphere?

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in ‘First Man’ Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

Silence. That’s all we can hear when Damien Chazelle’s First Man reaches its final destination. It happens on the moon, where there is no sound, only sensory-commandeering blackness all around. For eight minutes, there’s hardly anything but the lunar surface and that infinite black. It’s a still, beguiling sequence in an often still and beguiling movie. First Man is Chazelle’s fourth film, and it is a technical marvel orbiting an unlit star. The star is Ryan Gosling and he is portraying a man who is perhaps the most emotionally inert American hero we’ve yet encountered in movies, NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong.

It’s a fascinating contrast of forms—a physically overwhelming, tension-filled film surrounding a quiet, withdrawn performance. It is both an act of faithful restraint—Chazelle largely based the film on James Hansen’s rigorous 2005 biography of Armstrong—and an unusual risk. Space has been the setting for some of the most rousing films ever made, starting with Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon from 1902 and leading all the way up to Claire Denis’s recently debuted, bodily-fluid-obsessed galactic opera High Life. These movies are often the domain of the surreal, the imagined, or the embellished. Apollo 13 is the pinnacle of true-life thrill rides set in space. It’s also riddled with errors. But First Man is not like Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff, and it’s certainly not like modern, fantastical visions of interstellar travel like The Martian or Gravity. It isn’t interested in charm or pluck or wonder. First Man is methodical, focused on the science and math of the men who traveled to space, admiring their stoicism and their dedication without devolving into hero worship or cowboy poetry. Chazelle does so by keeping his own feet on the ground.

Around the time of J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it became fashionable for filmmakers to tout a return to “practical effects.” This meant that in their movies, when spaceships docked on desert planets, they would be made of lived-in graphite and polycarbonate. Real stuff, none of that CGI hooey. Chazelle’s film takes practical effects to a new plane. His spaceships and test crafts and launching stations are made of bolts, gears, and machine parts, not buffed and polished science-fiction mega-metal. Fire and atmosphere and wear have turned these machines into rickety, uncertain vessels for dangerous travel—death traps. And navigating them amid the stars, we understand, requires uncommon fortitude—intestinal, intellectual, and otherwise. To do so requires an exceptional commander.

First Man is also a movie that shares thematic touchstones with Chazelle’s previous films, particularly an obsession with the rigor and commitment that young people apply to achieve extraordinary goals. In La La Land, Gosling’s character turns his life over to music, at the expense of love and his dignity. In Whiplash, Miles Teller’s character turns over his life to music at the expense of love and his physical well-being. In Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Guy turns his life over to music (and another woman) at the expense of Madeline. There is a clear through line in Chazelle’s work: Greatness requires uncommon sacrifice.

First Man, of course, is not about music. And its script, unlike his previous films, was not written by Chazelle. (Those duties are handled by gifted Academy Award–winning writer Josh Singer.) But Neil Armstrong is an artist in his own way. And like the others, the movie is about that obsession, in this case a cosmic quest to outstrip predecessors, to take a leap onto the surface of unknown territory. Chazelle does it with a firm, consequences-minded grip on the space race, the men who studied and sacrificed their way to the stars, and the women who grounded their lives. In Claire Foy’s Janet Armstrong, Gosling has a dutiful, ethical equal who supports her husband’s ambition even when he declines to make himself emotionally available to his family. Foy, with her dewdrop eyes, clenched posture, and boyish haircut, carries a lot of the emotional luggage in the movie. She lashes out at Armstrong’s ground-bound guides, “You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood. You don’t have anything under control.” She bears the burden of fear and contempt, an anchor whose chain has been clipped. They have love between them, but throughout, Janet resents her husband’s steady, stoic disposition. (Janet and Neil Armstrong divorced after 38 years of marriage.)

Gosling’s Neil Armstrong has none of the Max Roach–idolizing vigor or wounded-soldier vulnerability of Teller’s character from Whiplash. He has fewer lines of dialogue than any movie star in a movie star part that I can recall. There’s no big speech, no virtuous declaration, no shocking twist. He’s a guy. A normal guy with abnormal journeys.

“We were so interested in the duality of their lives,” Gosling told GQ, “how these astronauts were using their flashlight of scientific knowledge to explore the vast mysteries of space, and at the same time, they would have to come home and mow the lawn and take out the trash. We had this term for ourselves: ‘the moon and the kitchen sink.’ And I think that was something we really tried to understand, what those extremes might have been like—and to honor that.”

Gosling’s Neil Armstrong isn’t a blank, just a man on a mission. Somewhere along the way, that became misconstrued.

As movie-business controversies go, the question of patriotism in First Man is a high-level dipshit festival. The issue began when Florida Senator Marco Rubio quote-tweeted a Business Insider story noting that First Man omits the American flag being planted on the moon’s surface. “This is total lunacy. And a disservice at a time when our people need reminders of what we can achieve when we work together,” Rubio tweeted. “The American people paid for that mission,on rockets built by Americans,with American technology & carrying American astronauts. It wasn’t a UN mission.”

Later, the president—who, like Rubio, has not seen the film—weighed in: “It’s unfortunate,” he said. “It’s almost like they’re embarrassed at the achievement coming from America, I think it’s a terrible thing.” This in the aftermath of several pieces that incorrectly stated that the flag doesn’t appear in the movie at all, or that the movie does not respect America. This is abstract, carnival-barker nonsense. The flag appears over and over again in First Man, as a patch on mission spacesuits, in sequences on Earth, and, yes, on the moon.

But the actual planting of the flag is not featured, as Chazelle decided to limit the field of vision to Armstrong and focus on a smaller, more personal aspect of the story once the astronaut reaches the surface of the moon. It’s an artistic choice. This has rendered Chazelle’s movie an object of takery and a keen example of our heinous media existence. Which, of course it has, I guess. First Man is a movie that is so singularly concentrated on the perspective of a lone person of few words and shaded motivations that it’s only natural that it would become a piñata in the cultural attention war. The movie never comes right out and says what it believes, which is one of its merits—and one suspects that’s because it’s about one of the three or four most significant, consciousness-shifting moments in our country’s history. The glory of the event is a statement all its own. Even at its quietest, it feels momentous.

First Man is thus pliable to the whims of any side that wants to pull on it. This week, a critical counterattack has sprung forth. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, in a kind of intellectual take showdown, called the film “an accidental right-wing fetish object.” The Daily Beast called it “nakedly patriotic.” This is corner-to-corner brinkmanship, ideological insinuation about a subject unworthy of the fuss. Is First Man overtly patriotic? I don’t think it matters, nor do I think it’s the point. Chazelle does seem interested in symbols. He’s after something more ephemeral; he admires Armstrong and all the dozens who worked on the Gemini and Apollo missions, inspiring a generation with their achievements. He’s trying to ratify respect without uncomplicating difficult people. These are universally human notions, not republic-minded visions of grandeur. First Man is a magnificent achievement in filmmaking by a director who seems like a controversy-averse person eager to keep making better and better films. And yet, somehow, he keeps finding himself in these messes.

Remember the 2017 Oscars? That was a grand time. There hadn’t been and still hasn’t been an awards show with such a dramatic, metaphorical conclusion. Unfortunately, it came at the expense of Chazelle’s La La Land, which won and then didn’t win Best Picture. But Chazelle did take home Best Director, and at 32 he was the youngest winner ever. Before that ceremony, I wrote: “... this win may look a little like Elia Kazan’s in 1948 for Gentleman’s Agreement — an early acknowledgement of a major filmmaker a bit ahead of his time.”

I’m not sure I was right about that. Chazelle is one of the most compelling young filmmakers to come around in decades. But watching First Man, I found myself more often impressed than absorbed. He’s more assured as a filmmaker than ever, but his previous films felt like feverish personal mission statements. They’re funny. They’re heavenly. They’re virtuosic. I can still recall the feeling of pulling cotton from beneath the cushion of my seat during the heart-exploding rendition of “Caravan” at the end of Whiplash. It was moviegoing as baptism. First Man is more like Sunday mass. Still an ode to a higher power, but controlled and rehearsed, prewritten. Eventually we get to Armstrong’s famed “One small step for man …” moment, and it is elegant and noble, a world-uniting encomium. We know where it’s going all along, and we’re happy to get there. Chazelle still has a knack for endings, even for ones we can see a mile away. One just hopes that next time we can’t see that far.