‘Your dad’s going to the Moon,” a mother tells her young son in First Man. “Okay,” he replies. “Can I go outside?” Directing the Neil Armstrong drama, Damien Chazelle sets out to do everything the opposite of the way Philip Kaufman did it in The Right Stuff. And yet the new film is nearly as brilliant as the 1983 classic. Each reflects its era’s mood and its filmmaking tendencies in intriguing ways, and the two works carry on a discourse with each other in the same way that, say, Saving Private Ryan and Dunkirk do.
Where The Right Stuff is hero-drunk, stirring, upbeat, fun-loving, hell-raising, and nationalistic, with courage its central virtue, and is (consequently) a conservative picture, Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong and First Man in general are tightly restrained, quiet, stone-faced, a bit slumped and unimposing, with technical skill the central virtue and an internationalist outlook. It took more than one kind of man to get America to the Moon. The earlier movie was about the cowboys. This one is about the nerds. It’s The Slight Stuff.
First Man isn’t overtly a left-leaning or unpatriotic movie, but its reserved, interior quality (it actually ends with two people staring silently at each other) is consonant with the tastes of liberals, whose unease with flag-waving is richly rewarded by the film’s omission of the moment when Armstrong plants Old Glory on the Moon. Does that choice bother me? Not really. The movie’s focus is simply elsewhere, with overlooked aspects of the mission. Fresh, contrarian approaches to familiar material give First Man so much energy that despite its contemplative character, two hours and 20 minutes pass briskly. First Man is easily the best film I’ve seen so far in 2018, a standout in everything from the acting to the sound effects.
In the eyes of Chazelle, who directed La La Land and the superb Whiplash, the U.S.–Soviet space race has been covered before and Armstrong’s motivation was unlike that of the rough riders (or the impossibly square Boy Scout John Glenn) in The Right Stuff. Instead he was driven by a matter that lay much closer to the heart. The two movies cover so much of the same territory I kept expecting a young Sam Shepard or Dennis Quaid to stroll into the frame, but Chazelle puts his stamp on everything, as a true artist does. Moments of triumph, for instance, are not so much celebrated as consecrated, with a stillness and wonder that is equally applicable considering the scale of achievement, and instead of stirring, martial music the score is angular, weird, conveying the unprecedented nature of what is happening. Chazelle doesn’t need to make this point because his brilliant production designer Nathan Crowley does it, but weigh the technology of everyday life in 1969 — the boxy, angular, death-trap cars, the televisions with rabbit-ear antennas — against the impertinence it took to try to reach beyond the bounds of this world with such crude tools. Your phone contains more calculating power than did a roomful of NASA’s whirring computing machines.
Gosling’s dutiful Armstrong bears a resemblance to Ed Harris’s John Glenn, only with a haunted and somber quality. Despite being a civilian test pilot, Armstrong has military ways: Everything is buttoned down, tucked in, and squared away. When he suffers a colossal family tragedy, he allows himself to cry only alone. Then he puts his emotions in a drawer. Later, breaking free of the atmosphere and going into orbit for the first time, he will allow himself only a smile. Far from being “Spam in a can” — as the astronauts in the earlier movie saw themselves, filling roles that could have been done and were in fact done by dogs and monkeys — Armstrong is from the opening moments extraordinarily adept, both with a joystick and with a pencil. Preparing to dock with a space station, he whips out a piece of paper and starts doing calculations. 1983 was Reagan’s time. Today is Mark Zuckerberg’s. This is a film for the age of the tech hero.
And yet for all of the mission focus, the calculus, the withheld emotion, Chazelle is building up to a moment of release, a stirring instance of movie magic that will take its place in the history of Hollywood’s most indelible sequences. Balanced against a dazzling re-creation of the Moon landing, Chazelle’s willingness to plumb the deepest wells of feeling yields transcendence. First Man is why we go to the movies.