First Man’s director, Damien Chazelle, thought that Neil Armstrong’s story would fit in well into the thriller genre, and I don’t think he was wrong at all. But, there’s something else that Chazelle brings to the film that heightens the experience in an unexpected way. The tangible sense of absolute terror at the vastness of space infuses the action with such an enhanced sense of extreme and existential fear that takes the sensation onto another sensory level.
It’s the story of a man so wholly dedicated to his career and the task of getting to the moon, filmed entirely in a way that feels like the audience is along for the ride. Armstrong is quiet, though. He’s driven and seems to have receded into himself in the face of his daughter’s death. It’s this death that really frames the film, and I feel like it’s the only real flaw. The movie seems to imply that the girl’s death was the incentive and source of Neil’s drive to reach the moon, capping with him dropping the girl’s bracelet onto the lunar surface. It feels so facile as a motive for such a monumental personal task. The little girl’s ghost appears in flashes of Neil’s vision here and there throughout the film, and it does seem to be the source of his laser-like focus on the task at hand. Perhaps it’s based on reality (I wouldn’t know), but it just seems so reductive and implausible.
However, moving on from that, the movie’s really well assembled both from a character point of view and from a visceral perspective. I’ve read that the movie is the story of the exciting Neil and his boring wife Janet, but I would argue that it’s just the story of Neil with Janet used as a contrasting device (a well built, rounded, character nonetheless) who demonstrates what Neil is leaving behind by going to the stars. They contrast really well. Neil is reserved and quiet, hardly showing any emotion and personifying the professional, and Janet has big, expressive eyes and is ready to speak her mind to whomever needs to hear it.
The sequence that contrasts them best dramatically is what is probably the best part of the film, Neil’s Gemini mission. The mission goes well, hitting its main objectives (the first connect between two vessels in orbit), but something goes wrong. There’s a mechanical failure that sends the linked vessels into an uncontrollable spin. We see the sequence from two points of view, Neil’s and Janet’s. Neil is trapped in his small capsule with only small views of the outside world spinning, and we share that perspective, feeling the terror as things go wrong against the empty void of outer space. Against that, we see Janet, listening to the little white box that pipes in the chatter from NASA as things go wrong. She’s trying to balance life with her children while taking some small part in her husband’s life, but when things go wrong and the audio gets cut by NASA, she’s powerless and frantic. She needs to know what’s happening to Neil, and no one will tell her. They’re truly separated at that moment, Neil alone and near death in space while Janet can’t find out anything below. It’s a great sequence that contrasts the two halves of Neil’s life.
The capstone of the film is the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon, of course, and it’s handled with the same sense of tension as the Gemini sequence. The landing is terrifying, as alarms blare and everything moves faster than one might expect from the grainy footage we’ve lived with for decades. It’s exciting and the culmination of the film’s promise, both personal and in terms of plot, creating a fantastic finale that, I feel, gets slightly undermined by the dropping of the bracelet. I know it provides an emotional framework for the large task Armstrong put himself through, but I just can’t get past the feeling that it’s facile and too easy.
The movie, by capturing everything so tightly from Armstrong’s perspective, creates an incredible sense of tension. Combined with the super-realistic take on space travel, it lends a sense of real terror to the dangers of traveling through the void. Contrasting that is the emotional reality that grounds the film most exemplified by the use of Neil’s wife, Janet. It’s a very good entertainment with intensely gripping passages.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 3.5/4