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Watching First Man might give viewers some sympathy for conspiracy theorists who allege the moon landings were faked: Roll back technology a half century, and such an achievement seems positively outlandish. In launch and flight scenes, the new film squeezes you into the rattling capsule clogged with myriad switches and wires. It makes you wonder, as the metal can’s occupants must have wondered, how the thing could get off the ground, let alone navigate through space’s vacuum to a distant, lifeless rock marked by no more than a borrowed drop of sunlight.
But the film raises a question more unsettling than the turbulent ride: What did man—what did the man Neil Armstrong—gain by this journey? Director Damien Chazelle celebrates mankind’s most spectacular accomplishment, but also brings us back down to Earth.
The film’s opening minutes set the mood: In 1962, Armstrong’s 2-year-old daughter, Karen, dies from a brain tumor. If First Man, based on James Hansen’s authorized biography, portrays Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) accurately, the husband and father rarely mourned outwardly or talked about the loss. He trained, he launched, he conquered Earth’s gravitational pull. And he took his two sons and long-suffering wife, Janet (Claire Foy), on picnics. The film cuts back and forth between Armstrong’s perilous job and tranquil domestic life—round trips between two very different worlds. What drove him? Ambition? Grief? The film portrays an introverted man who wanted to get a job done.
Rated PG-13 for more than a few instances of strong language, First Man vividly reminds modern viewers that human space travel bears no resemblance to Han Solo’s light-speed jaunts. Rocket science in the 1960s consisted of bolts, hoses, and math worked out on polar graph paper—Armstrong’s computational device in one scene. The pilots who flew the Gemini and Apollo machines relied on gauges with spinning dials that looked as if they’d fit an old Esso gas pump.
The film doesn’t idolize the first man to set foot on the lunar surface, but does recognize the large team of smart people and daring souls who helped bring about that 1969 “giant leap for mankind.” Along the way, human and natural variables meant that fatal tragedies remained part of the space-flight equation, and Armstrong lost friends and colleagues.
Chazelle dazzles with authentic re-creations of 1960s home interiors, hairstyles, and astronautical gear. His greatest triumph, though, might be the slow buildup toward lunar touchdown. When Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) took his first close glimpse of the moon’s surface, and Armstrong finally placed his boot into the gray dust, I felt a sense of wonderment.
However, my wonderment turned to melancholy moments later as the film quickly ended: If the otherworldly mission caused any crew member to ponder his relationship with the moon’s Creator, the film doesn’t let on. Perhaps Chazelle felt that would be too cliché? (I didn’t catch any whiff of anti-Americanism in First Man, despite the widespread complaints that it does not show astronauts planting the U.S. flag on the lunar surface.)
The ending gets one thing absolutely right. In the final scene, Armstrong—back at headquarters in shirt, tie, and slacks—doesn’t look like someone who accomplished the greatest human feat in history. Nothing about his life has changed.