‘First Man’ Review: A ghostly vision of grief
*This review contains spoilers for ‘First Man’*
First Man opens on Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) piloting an X-15 in a flight out of the atmosphere. We can’t see his face behind his visor, the ascent through the clouds clouding it, and the rest of the cockpit, in extreme darkness. It’s an unsettling sight, one that’s difficult to shake. But that first shot — as well as the rest of the intensely physical, claustrophobic opening sequence, in which we get a brief glimpse at wonder in the Earth’s horizon reflected across his eyes — sets up Neil forcefully.
He hides himself. Maybe not purposefully. But his deep emotions are rarely explicit. We see him through what he does, and the rare moments where and when he chooses to express something — like in the backroom of his cabin, quietly sobbing out of view and behind his hands, at the wake for his daughter Karen, after her shattering loss to cancer.
And the loose, vulnerable, visceral way in which Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz traverse the loss makes it nearly unbearable, especially in a breath-stealing cut from Neil sitting with his daughter, gently stroking her hair, to her funeral, the harsh clicks of the casket being lowered beneath soil laid across the cut and the bare-bones strings of Karen’s theme haunting it.
In fact, death, and the grief that follows, is the ghostly specter of the entire film. The film’s depiction of grief — the slow, guttural, seemingly unending feeling of sickness that forces oppressive gravity on your body from the inside, like a collapsing star — is overwhelming. And that framework is something that Ryan Gosling lives in so fully, down to his bones, so much so that a simple “sorry,” which Neil struggles to get out as he communicates to his kids the possibility that he might not ever come back, tells us everything we need to know about how much he’s struggling with his journey.
To arrive at such paralyzing death, Chazelle approaches both spacecrafts and the home with such a knowing internal focus. He knows the intangible connection and intimacy at the home. A shadowy, slow dance scene with Neil and Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) to Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman’s “Lunar Rhapsody” in front of a blue-lit curtain. Backyard conversations between aspirational astronauts over a beer and under the moon light. Playful freedom with kids in a game of hide-and-seek or in the backyard under the sun, where Chazelle takes a page from Terrence Malick.
He also knows how part of that comfort in the home is forever broken with the loss of a child. When the walls are suffocating and the people hardest to talk to about it, or anything of the sort, share those walls. When neighbors’ kids remind you of your own. Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren light and shoot that broken space — particularly the neighborhood where a swing set reminds Neil of his daughter — with a ghostly tinge, deep blacks and hazy white light. And Hurwitz leans into his theremin, a sound that nears extraterrestrial, but lands more so in the spectral.
It’s this approach to domesticity — a space often failed, failing those characters in turn — that does service to Janet, a decidedly more explicit person. In her care for their children, often intercut with Neil’s missions. In her confrontation of death, brought to near breaking points by those missions and his refusal to talk about them or their daughter, prompting her to reach into him herself and force him to talk to their kids so that they don’t end up broken in the way that he is. In her support for Pat White, wife of Neil’s colleague Ed, as she confronts death. In all this, Foy is riveting, rendering Janet as her own pilot of sorts, especially when Neil’s above.
NASA is Neil’s escape, work that he’s good at. And the work can be so indescribably beautiful, like the home can be. In Gemini VIII’s groundbreaking docking with the Agena, Chazelle constructs the sequence not triumphantly, but with pure awe and wonder at the stunning beauty. To Hurwitz’s “Docking Waltz,” an elegant, graceful piece, the crafts are gentle dancers in space, a vision clearly sprung out of Chazelle and Hurwitz’s affinity for classical music and musicals, but also clearly reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But space travel brings more death, tying a permanent bond to it just like the home has. With monstrous and jarring sound design, purely perspectival and quite shaky shots (mostly extreme close-up), and a score that, in especially terrifying instances like Gemini VIII’s malfunction after docking with the Agena, verges on horror, Chazelle makes it abundantly clear that these are rattling metal death traps, and that it’s miraculous that human beings can travel in them.
But is the human cost worth it? Chazelle constantly poses this, even when the characters of his film don’t, don’t want to, or are too late in doing so. However, Chazelle doesn’t necessarily formulate an ultimate answer, suggesting instead that the horribly tragic deaths were, at least, not in vain.
And that’s because of not the triumph of the moon landing, but the scope of it, something writer Josh Singer lays out toward the beginning of the film when Neil is asked why space travel is important.
“I don’t know what space exploration will uncover, but I don’t think it’ll be exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it’ll be more of the fact that it allows us to see things that maybe we should have seen a long time ago, but just haven’t been able to until now.”
“Space exploration changes your perception.”
As Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Neil open the craft door to the moon, we shoot out, the frame expanding, on full IMAX screens, to roughly six stories tall, and halt on a grey, barren landscape. The moment is quite literally arresting, as the massive sight is suddenly consumed in silence. Neil slowly descends, logging details about the ladder and the texture of the surface.
Then, he steps down and utters his famous words.
What’s so staggering about the moment is that it’s shot from an angle much like the real footage, and the almost square frame of the IMAX footage replicates the almost square frame of the 16mm real footage — except we see so much detail and the image takes up so much of our view. The reality of the construction of the shot and the reality of the detail in the footage combine to render the moment transcendent. We’re there.
But Chazelle doesn’t shoot the rest of the sequence like that. He very quickly returns to the ghostly, Hurwitz’s theremin following. The first footprint is meditated on. Buzz’s playful hopping across the surface is almost, like the docking sequence, an elegant dance, but quieter and more contemplative.
And Neil is shot in close-up, his visor reflecting the moon and its horizon over his face, the shadow of a man in what looks like the land of the dead. Scored by the restrained, but waning theremin piece, “Moon Walk,” the scene intercuts grainy, home video style footage of Neil and his family when Karen was alive, but expanded to the full screen as well, the parallel imbuing those loving moments with a scope just as large as the moon. And then, Neil steps up to a crater, pulls down the gold layer of his visor — revealing his tearful face and, really, himself for the first time — and holds out a bracelet of Karen’s, dropping it to the bottom.
Like the speech prepared in case of failure (which Chazelle partially includes) suggests, the sacrifice of the mission was not in vain, nor would it have been were Neil and Buzz to have to remain on the moon. But even though they came back, another part of the universe remains touched by mankind, no further than man has gone today.
And though Neil did not die on the moon, a piece of his daughter lays to rest there, allowing Neil to find a peace he couldn’t before.
The sequence deliberately ends on that moment, something so human, and cuts to archival footage of the hundreds of millions around the world that watched a pinnacle human achievement — the death that it took to get there honored by so much life. And while inarguably indulgent, Chazelle turns, respectfully romantic, to Kennedy’s famous speech.
Chazelle then ends his film like he’s ended all of his films: with a simple look. But too like those other films, the look embodies everything that the film is and finds some solace in the imperfect place it leaves its characters. While there is a wall and a window between them due to Neil’s quarantine upon return from the lunar surface, a wall that sits as much more than just physical, Neil and Janet connect in a way they struggled to after Karen’s death, hands against the glass, looking into each other’s eyes.
It’s odd for such a film, one of a momentous historical moment, to end up as an artful poem with the spirit of Dylan Thomas. But death permeates First Man because it had to. The human achievement was not simply for or of the time, but beyond the time. Throughout the film, Chazelle portrays Neil in his backyard, looking up at the moon, the camera refocusing through the branches to find it. Death has fallen around and upon the human beings who have looked up and wondered at our place in the stars ever since we left the cave. And while our attempts to venture further and define that place will always be touched by death, we don’t stop in fear of it. We keep going because of it. We keep going to pay respect to it.