At the risk of sounding naff, Damien Chazelle’s First Man is an illustration of a man’s story, and not the story of mankind’s achievements. It is also the best film ever made about factual space travel, conceivably because it is a personal story about one man’s singular experience with his particularly zealous relationship with space travel, not an insight into the particulars of NASA or the arguably dubious reasoning behind the space race of the 1960s.
First Man succeeds because of its understanding of perspective. Growing up, we are all aware of Neil Armstrong and his achievements in regards to landing on the moon. Most of us have also heard of Buzz Aldren too. Only poor Michael Collins, the one who stayed behind in the ship while his crew mates completed the lunar landing, is often left out of popular historical lexicon. Armstrong is a figure. He is the man who first stepped on the moon and broadcast those famous words that I’m sure you all know. To Chazelle, he is a man. I’m sure, of course, Armstrong was a man to himself as well.
Sometimes history is made without the people involved being immediately aware of the impact that they are having on the world. In other moments, such as during the Apollo 11 landing in 1969, the participants were undoubtedly self-aware enough to know that they were implicated in something enormously consequential.
In 1961, John F Kennedy made a promise to his country “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” But First Man is not a jingoistic celebration of a nation’s bygone era but a drawing of a man going to work every day. His work just happens to be the job of landing on the moon.
As Armstrong is a man in Chazelle’s film, rather than a cultural figure, much of First Man pivots around his relationship with his family. He had a wife, Janet (Claire Foy), two boys, Eric and Mark, and a daughter, Karin, who died as a young girl of pneumonia related to weak heath a result of a malignant tumour. His wife never sees him grieve, he is too emotionally reticent, but the inclusion of Armstrong’s family in the film is central to Chazelle’s success in conveying the astronaut as someone who went to the moon, not a fragment of popular culture that went to the moon.
That voyage involves a determination for exploration that the world had debatably not enjoyed since the hay-day of the Royal Geographical Society in London, but the RGS never had to content with the scientific headaches of expeditions into space. We are not privy, in First Man, to each technological breakthrough, each moment of intellectual triumph, because those are NASAs triumphs and breakthroughs. More pertinent to Armstrong’s experience is the rattling metal of critical mechanisms, or a technician fixing a seatbelt with a Swiss Army knife moments before a take-off.
Who would have thought that space travel from inside a shuttle is a more perilous than from without? First Man may be the only film to depict space travel for what it actually is, the stakes as they actually are, rather than an interpretation.
Similarly, there are no cross-cuts to Mission Control during the landing – if you consider this a spoiler, there may be no hope for you – or newsanchors speculations or excited onlookers or emotional spouses, because what Damien Chazelle wants us to experience and significantly, what he manages to achieve, is as near an emotional, visceral impression of what Neil Armstrong probably experienced. In light of the fact that walking on the moon is pretty far removed from what most of us will ever realise in our lives, it’s no enlargement to suggest that First Man is a considerably powerful piece of filmmaking.
The reasons behind the space program are unimportant, at least to this film they are. A couple of characters, including Armstrong himself, offer their opinions on why humanity ought to walk on the moon, but they are not Chazelle’s own opinions. First Man isn’t an observation on the why but a consideration of an achievement of one man, more adventurous than most science fiction, who really did go boldly where no one had gone before.