The moon landing has been one of the most iconic moments in American history so there was always going to be a lot of pressure on any movie to capture it for the cinema. First Man, Damien Chazelle’s portrayal of Neil Armstrong’s career as an astronaut, has received a lot of criticisms whether it’s for not portraying the planting of the flag or for just being too slow or not bombastic enough. That’s a shame because the movie is actually one of the most interesting and visually stunning character studies in recent memory.
First Man opens with Neil Armstrong (portrayed by Ryan Gosling) doing a third party test run for NASA on a new spacecraft. The test almost kills him when the spacecraft bounces off the atmosphere and briefly gets stuck in outer space. Death is an ever-looming threat in this movie and director Damien Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer makes sure you never forget that in a way that even thrillers struggle to do. The first act mostly deals with the death of Armstrong’s young daughter, Karen, from cancer, and it’s in this first act that Chazelle reveals his rather original portrayal of an introverted person like Armstrong. There are so many sequences that show Armstrong reacting to events by himself and struggling to talk about major life events with other people. It’s done so authentically that this might just be the best portrayal of an introvert since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Extreme close ups and even first person angle shots are constantly used, as Gosling’s face is almost ever present. This gives us such an interesting look into such a stoic figure as Armstrong while also allowing his breaks into emotion to deliver as much effect as possible. While this visual style could become tiresome, Chazelle finds occasional opportunities to deliver a more conventional visual style and makes the most of them.
This more conventional visual style comes to the forefront in the much-discussed lunar landing sequence. Chazelle still makes sure to leave audience mesmerized with some incredible use of IMAX cameras and interesting visual motifs, but the movie also decides to have this sequence be the point in which Armstrong gets an emotional payoff. That’s quite unexpected for the portrayal of the character up to that point, but Gosling really sells it. This moment of emotional payoff also reveals that anyone who is trying to drum up the flag controversy surrounding this movie hasn’t actually seen this movie. Not only is the planted flag clearly shown at two points during the lunar sequence (not to mention multiple other points in the movie where the flag or the words United States are portrayed in patriotic manner), but also actually showing Armstrong plant the flag would have overstuffed a moment that should really be about this bit of emotional payoff.
First Man not only functions as a visually stunning thriller but as an effective character study of an introvert.