Damien Chazelle has wowed us once again with his versatility and his ability to turn dramas into thrillers. “Whiplash,” one of his first major works and one of my absolute favorites, managed to turn a story about an aspiring drummer into a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat whirlwind. “First Man” combines a touching and insightful biopic with cortisol-inducing scenes, and I left the theater both stressed and in awe.
Space films often focus on problem-solving that NASA has to conduct, either in the timeframe of a day or two before the oxygen runs out in a spaceship (“Apollo 13”), or within a few years before the first moon landing, against a backdrop of racial tension (“Hidden Figures”), or even in fictional tales like “The Martian” and “Gravity.” The film “First Man” instead allows the audience to truly feel and experience just how long it took to reach the moon, and the enormous cost of that achievement.
As the title suggests, “First Man” centers on Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. He watches astronaut after astronaut die in previous test launches, often needlessly (I’d normally say that’s a spoiler, but the history is already known - just too often forgotten). The film stretches over two hours and is marked with tragedy from beginning to end. We are put in Armstrong’s headspace, before he knew we would succeed. He must have thought, “Is all this really worth it? The people who’ve died, the taxpayer dollars gone that could have been spent on the poor, on education? Are we doing this because we truly wish to as the human race, or because we’re engaged in a pointless and dangerous arms race with the Soviets?”
While the film primarily focuses on Armstrong and his family, Chazelle gives an insightful portrayal of other key figures, particularly Buzz Aldrin (who is an alumnus of Severn School). Buzz often says what everyone else is thinking, albeit in a somewhat tactless manner at times, and can break the long stretches of fear and grief with humor.
Some have criticized the movie for not showing Armstrong plant the American flag, but this is unfounded. The flag is shown on the moon, and obviously NASA is an American organization. I don’t think Chazelle tried to make a political statement by leaving it out - rather, he chose to focus on the moon landing as a human achievement. It’s really quite incredible when you think about it - we made it to the moon, just because we could, because we were curious, because we wanted to know and touch the stars. If that doesn’t embody the best side of the human spirit, I don’t know what does.
A powerful and compelling drama, “First Man” is an absolute must-see on the big screen.