With an adequate effects budget it seems impossible — I know, I’m tempting fate — to make a bad and boring movie about the American space program. The earth has spun around the sun 49 times since a gang of Yanks managed to catapult three of their number up to the surface of our satellite, in rockets and landing capsules that today look like something that an obsessive-compulsive welder might have put together in his backyard, and nothing has transpired since to eclipse or even rival the epic cinematic grandeur of their feat. Even the most hackish Hollywood director, the clumsiest screenwriter, would find his efforts elevated at least to watchability by the subject of man’s assault upon the fastness of the moon.
Damien Chazelle, the irritatingly young director last seen losing the Best Picture Oscar to Moonlight after his La La Land was briefly and mistakenly declared the winner, is the farthest thing from a hack, and his First Man, which stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, is a beautiful and riveting piece of work. But if the beauty is Chazelle’s achievement, his narrative is sometimes riveting in spite of itself, with the inherent drama of the material rescuing the director from his own rather peculiar narrative choices.
Those peculiar choices were not, despite what you may have heard on the Internet, the conscious rejection of American patriotism and the banishment of Old Glory from its proper place on the moon. The contretemps about the movie’s alleged lack of patriotism was kicked off by Gosling’s giving a dumb interview in which he seemed to downplay the singular Americanness of the Apollo mission (probably thinking about the Chinese market, like all business-savvy stars these days) and then kept alive by a bunch of cynical right-wingers on social media. It has nothing to do with the movie itself, which makes it very clear that humanity’s greatest technological achievement had “Made in the U.S.A.” stamped all over it. (The newsreel footage near the end in which a Frenchwoman says that she knew that America could do it gilds the lily just a bit, if anything.)
No, what’s peculiar about the movie is the decision to make the human part of the moon mission a bit of a misanthropic slog. Gosling’s Armstrong, in this story, is driven into the Apollo program by his young daughter’s death from cancer and spends the entire 1960s in a state of repressed grief, draining the happiness out of his marriage to Janet (Claire Foy, with a lot less to work with than in The Crown) and denying his sons the basic expressions of fatherly emotion.
This is, I suppose, one way to read Armstrong’s famous Middle American modesty and reticence and literal-minded engineer’s affect. But it seems awfully contrived, an injection of psychologizing and a dose of suburban anomie that the drama really doesn’t need, and a misreading of its stolid hero’s likely core.
And the psychological weight the movie piles onto Gosling’s heavily underplayed performance means that the rest of the moon-shot team never quite comes into focus: Jason Clarke and Patrick Fugit and Corey Stoll (playing Buzz Aldrin as an obtuse jerk, a narrative decision with no payoff) are there as fellow astronauts, and Coach Taylor — er, Kyle Chandler — and Ciaran Hinds as the men in charge, but none of them really register as human beings in the way that the Apollo 13 team did for Ron Howard, or The Right Stuff gang for Philip Kaufman.
Which means that this is a movie carried by its set pieces, and by Chazelle’s determination to make you feel spaceflight from the inside — to experience the crazy mix of euphoria and terror, to stare at an insanely complicated and non-responsive control panel in a moment of crisis, to feel yourself strapped inside a rocket-propelled tin can as it skips off the atmosphere or tries to snap like a key into the lock of another tin can floating in the void of space. All these feelings are successfully conjured, and all the sequences leading up to the moon mission are well worth the price of admission — as is the moonwalk itself, filmed in a way that accentuates both the alien majesty of the setting and the wild amateur-rocketry-club quality of the landing.
I only wish Chazelle had been more confident in the action and its heroes and accepted that his movie didn’t need a “Rosebud” origin story and some gauzy lunar-surface flashbacks to explain what sent Neil Armstrong hurtling through space. For that, the moon suffices.