First Man Review: One Giant Leap for Space Movies

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First Man Review: One Giant Leap for Space Movies

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Midway through the masterful First Man, its lead Neil Armstrong (a clinical Ryan Gosling) deconstructs the ethos of Damien Chazelle’s biopic of the man who took the world’s most famous small step. At a NASA interview for the Gemini programme, Armstrong is asked to articulate the indispensability of space travel. He reveals that it offers a different vantage point and by extension, a different perspective of the universe. “It allows us to see things that we should have been able to see a long time ago.” Chazelle imbibes this thought and runs with it, giving us a space film that probes the peculiarity of an astronaut who is unable to dissociate obsession with passion, tragedy with triumph, motive with meaning, and journey with closure.

First Man lets us see films about space the way that they should have been seen long back. More often than not, in a bid to romanticise the elation of exploring the great beyond, movies about space tend to be heady, heroic, and theatrical. The astronauts, however, remain merely a vessel – their inner expeditions reduced to a footnote. The crowning glory of these films is almost always, its galactic destination. But Chazelle gives us a different view of this genre: He refuses to define his lead by his impossible achievement.

First Man isn’t about the mission to the moon. Or even about the moon. It’s a sombre portrait of what going to the moon and back does to a man and his family.

With First Man, Chazelle, ever the observant filmmaker, dares the audience to choose whose PoV it wants to keep looking from – the mission or the astronaut. As the film looks at the moon through the eyes of Armstrong, we’re left to witness details about the man: How he weeps uncontrollably in his study after the death of his daughter, yet refuses to shed a tear every time a fellow astronaut becomes a casualty in their mission to the moon. How his ambition for space is interlinked with the distance he has with his family. How he stays out to stare at the sky with childlike wonder, even as his wife gets used to him not looking back at her.

You see, it doesn’t matter if it is love or the moon: In the end it’s all about the journey.

We witness the lengths Armstrong might have traversed – numbed by loss and grief – in his search for closure. And this is the film’s biggest challenge: to expose the life of a man who would do anything to run away from it.

First Man is not interested in retelling the glossy “One small step for a man. A giant leap for mankind” narrative – Chazelle even foregoes the pride-fuelled moment of the American flag on the moon. Instead, the film invests in the intricacies of that “small step”. Chazelle shoots Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s moment on the moon with poetic choreography – the camera stays fixed at Armstrong’s feet as he takes that landmark step. Yet the bits that stay with you are Aldrin jumping away on the lunar surface and Armstrong letting go of his daughter’s bracelet along with his grudge. The whole sequence is shot with such a dreamy eye (and scored to near perfection by Justin Hurwitz) that it’s impossible not to recall La La Land. In fact, a scene of two spacecrafts docking with each other is eerily reminiscent of Mia and Sebastian’s dance inside the laboratory.

In First Man, Chazelle intersperses the actual price of space travel with the personal costs Armstrong had to bear. If La La Land reminded us of what it used to feel like when we fell in love without worrying about self-preservation, then First Man is an ode to the time where there was nothing heroic about being an astronaut. You see, it doesn’t matter if it is love or the moon: In the end it’s all about the journey.