“Your daddy’s going to the moon.” Janet Armstrong tells her son, in a voice shaking with pride and panic. “Okay.” The boy shrugs. “Can I go play now?” This exchange highlights the premise of First Man: Neil Armstrong, and the other astronauts who furthered the American ideal by reaching further and climbing higher than any forebear had ever dreamed, were more than just cosmic Marlboro Men. They—and by extension, their families—had to reconcile the ubiquitous responsibilities of husbands and fathers with the breathless exhilaration and extreme terror of their occupation. And it was a job, as the surreal scene where Armstrong packs a bag and kisses his wife at the door before taking a trip to the moon demonstrates. First Man shears away the layers of mythology and public relations surrounding one of the most witnessed events in human history, revealing an intimate, fascinating, and strangely muted character study beneath.
Much of the film’s introspective tone is derived from the point of view of its central character. Unlike some of his more charismatic counterparts in the Gemini and Apollo programs, Neil Armstrong had long built a reputation as a taciturn individual. The film frames his journey to the moon around a series of personal tragedies: Their daughter Karen succumbs to a brain tumor; his closest colleagues sacrifice their lives for the space race with shocking frequency. Armstrong transmutes his grief into a furious, sullen focus to get to the moon. The film makes an underlying point that Armstrong, the reluctant, contemplative hero, was the perfect choice to put the first footprint on the lunar surface.
Ryan Gosling’s lead performance is a masterful example of understatement. He finds just the right notes for a public figure who had a remarkable economy with words. (A reporter asks him what he would take if he could pack something more for the moon. “Extra fuel.” He says flatly.) Claire Foy provides much of film’s emotional ballast as Janet Armstrong, a woman grown weary playing the part of a pert, ever-patient astronaut’s wife. If his sacrifices are public records, her suffering is largely done in the form of silent, trembling anxiety.
Armstrong made two journeys beyond the earth, and they’re both shown in arrestingly claustrophobic fashion. The astronauts are jolted and flung about the cockpit, and forced to shout instructions over the mind-boggling roar of Atlas rockets. More than any other space-faring film, First Man imbues the viewer with the frightening, primal rush of being pushed to the limits of human endurance. That said, the filmmakers make the right choice by saving the bulk of the special effects for the inevitable conclusion.
If Apollo 13 took a near-disaster and presented it as a rallying point of jingoistic pride, then First Man does largely the opposite: While the mission of Apollo 11 stands monolithic as an achievement of engineering and exploration, this is a film tinged with melancholy and frustration. It’s inspiring, to be sure, but in a much softer and more thoughtful way than you’d imagine. Viewers will likely walk away from this movie in quiet, bittersweet reflection, a perfect testament to the extraordinary yet introverted man who made one of humankind’s most giant leaps.