Space is terrifying. Just about every movie set in space acknowledges this simple truth. In space, as the iconic tagline of Ridley Scott’s “Alien” helpfully reminds, no one can hear you scream, and there are a lot of reasons to scream — some pulled from history books (“Apollo 13”), many others conjured up in the brains of storytellers, from dysfunctional robots (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) to sun-induced madness (“Sunshine”) to, of course, aliens (“Prometheus,” “Life”).
But in recounting the story of Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 lunar landing, what Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” has done better than any film that came before it is to create a convincing facsimile of the visceral experience of space travel. By no means is it a horror story, yet there are sequences that inspire heart-pounding terror in ways that would make slasher films green with envy.
While the film features the occasional awe-inspiring “money shot” of the vastness of space or the grandeur of the Earth seen from afar, far more of it is full of stuff that would be left on the cutting room floor in another movie. But that’s exactly the point. “First Man” largely eschews the technical talk and theoretical pondering in favor of imagining the visceral experience of early space explorers like Armstrong, flying into the great beyond in haphazard-looking contraptions that prior to launch only worked in theory, like an elite squad of guinea pigs. It’s the sort of film meant to be watched on the biggest screen one can find. For the Wellesley community, I have two words: Jordan’s IMAX.
While by no means going to a full first-person P.O.V. extreme like 2015’s experimental action film “Hardcore Henry,” “First Man” features the frequent use of P.O.V. shots, especially within the spacecrafts and particularly once on the moon, further emphasizing the sensation of visceral, first-hand experience. Ironically helpful in this matter is Neil Armstrong’s bland, white bread personality, making him a sort of blank slate onto which one’s own thoughts can be projected, like a Rorschach test. The film seems to indicate that the only actually interesting thing Armstrong ever said is that one line everybody has heard approximately a million times. Still, Ryan Gosling does an admirable job of trying to infuse the role with charm. Considering Gosling possesses a peculiar sort of charm that seems to grow on you even when you don’t want it to, like a dandelion or a particularly invasive fungus, the fact that he ultimately does not fully succeed in this venture only further emphasizes the fundamental impossibility of the task. Claire Foy likewise does all she can to add heft to the role of wife Janet Armstrong, though she never quite becomes a fully realized person in spite of a few compelling scenes.
It’s common knowledge that sound doesn’t travel in space because it’s a desolate vacuum of nothingness. In spite of that — or perhaps because of it — space films have a long history of impressive, innovative and iconic scores, from “2001” to “Alien” to “Interstellar.” Even films more moderately successful on the whole, such as 2007’s “Sunshine,” have left lasting musical impressions — that film’s “Sunshine (Adagio in D Minor),” has since been used in trailers for more than 10 other movies as well as in myriad advertisements and TV shows. All this to say that “First Man” had a lot to live up to on the music front, and frequent Chazelle collaborator — and former college roommate — Justin Hurwitz steps up to the task at hand, delivering a somewhat haunting yet strangely romantic score that wisely puts the theremin in a starring role. For the uninitiated, the theremin is an electronic instrument played without physical contact that sounds like singing ghosts or a 1950s alien invasion, probably because it was used to score arguably the two biggest ones: “The Day The Earth Stood Still” and “The Thing from Another World.”
While in certain regards a straightforward and celebratory, watch-this-one-guy-find-his-place-in-history biopic, Chazelle appears to have learned at least a tiny bit from the backlash against the whole “white savior of Jazz” thing in his last film, “La La Land,” because “First Man” at the very least acknowledges some of the controversies surrounding the Apollo missions — namely, that not everybody was equally supportive of spending millions and millions of taxpayer dollars to beat the Soviets to a space rock. Or it might just be that “First Man” is the first film Chazelle has directed that was written by someone else, in this case, Josh Singer, the Oscar-winning screenwriter behind “Spotlight” and “The Post.”
Either way, one of the film’s more intriguing moments comes in the form of a montage set to Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken word protest poem “Whitey On The Moon,” intercutting the construction of the Apollo 11 spacecraft with protests, historical soundbites from both everyday people and major figures such as novelist Kurt Vonnegut, and even a brief cameo featuring Leon Bridges as Gil Scott-Heron himself, all debating the merits of sinking millions of taxpayer dollars into the space race when so many American citizens were struggling just to survive. The underlying message of the Apollo space missions, President John F. Kennedy makes clear in archival footage, is that the American people collectively have the power to do absolutely anything if they put their minds to it, even things formerly considered impossible, like putting a man on the moon. If the Powers That Be wanted to put that willpower towards something like fixing gender inequality or breaking the cycle of institutional racism, they could — they just have never wanted to. At least, not nearly as much as they wanted to put a white American man on the moon.
In addressing these controversies, “First Man” opens up a can of worms it then tries to close, only to never really succeed. The film’s efforts towards this end, such as skipping over the American flag planting on the moon in a conscious attempt to pitch the lunar landing as an achievement that “transcended countries and borders,” to quote Gosling, never really manage to stick.
For all the wonder “First Man” inspires at one of the 20th century’s greatest technical achievements, it’s still quite hard not to leave the movie thinking that Scott-Heron and Vonnegut had the right idea when they argued that the U.S. government should have tried to handle a few more of the problems faced by their citizens on the ground before turning their attention to space.