Rain greeted me outside the theater after a screening of Damien Chazelle’s “First Man.” As I walked back to Georgetown, the world around me felt both smaller and larger at the same time. If you’ve ever experienced something so highly impactful in an understated way, the ensuing gap in expectation pinpoints the exact feeling I had in my stomach after leaving the theater — and not necessarily in a negative way. Let me explain.
“First Man” has been a long time coming. Though I did not expect Chazelle to be the director behind the project, a film needed to be made that attempted to humanize those involved with the Apollo 11 mission by dedicating itself to the first man behind it.
Part biopic, part space-art-project, “First Man” recounts the career of Neil Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, as an astronaut at NASA and documents the challenges of his personal life.
Early on, the film reveals that Armstrong’s first child, Karen, died as a toddler, which takes a huge emotional toll on him and his ability to be present with his family. As a result, his work with NASA becomes a way for him to focus on something beyond himself and his personal life. The film mainly depicts the space missions and projects with which Armstrong engages before captaining Apollo 11, alongside the personal toils he endures on Earth.
Some people may walk away from the film believing it possesses a glaring flaw: “First Man” feels too small for the vastness of its subject. In relation to other recent films about space, such as Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” or Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” “First Man” feels submissive, as though its tone is unable match the great mystery of space. The film’s subdued color scheme, portrayal of Armstrong’s passive energy and focus on his personal matters all contribute to a feeling of disproportion when positioned beside his riveting space missions.
Yet this sense of discomfort is essential to Armstrong’s story, as it reflects the quietness and distance that radiate from his own persona. All aspects of the film are devoted to capturing and relaying his perspective, both as an astronaut and as a person.
Armstrong’s perspective is not only ingrained in the tone of the film but also used as a structural element tracing his emotional peaks and periods of stagnation. The film’s opening sequence is shot from Armstrong’s point of view as he navigates a test flight, while the second sequence of scenes expresses the loss his family suffers when Karen passes away. Much of the film is constructed in this way, pitting the ultimate exhilaration Armstrong feels in space against his personal life.
As Armstrong is working at NASA, “First Man” captures the feelings of excitement and innovation, tinged with a personal sense of release from his normal life. The scenes in between, in contrast, illustrate his everyday existence and the human struggles he faces.
With every tragedy, Earth seems to become that much quieter and that much smaller, as Armstrong retreats further into his shell. By delving into the intricacies of Armstrong’s suffering, “First Man” is not about his adventures or accomplishments in space but rather about the man behind them.
Finally, Chazelle deserves considerable credit for the manner in which he brings the film full circle.
Throughout the film, Armstrong seems to try to eliminate any sort of association between the two parts of his life — his career as an astronaut and his personal life. Yet, because the two parts are so inevitably connected, each path ends up hindering the other in some capacity.
This tension resolves itself only once Armstrong finally reaches the moon. In a scene early on in the film, Armstrong is in the middle of an interview with NASA when he is asked why he believes in space.
He responds by discussing the idea that space allows us to see things from a new perspective or even see things we had never noticed before. His words prove true once he’s standing on the moon.
Chazelle’s “First Man” is truly a work of art but is not necessarily easily digestible. The film is not only aesthetically beautiful and extraordinarily intimate but also ambitious in its subject matter and in its commitment to conveying Armstrong’s character.
With ample reflection, “First Man” delivers a profound meditation on the strife of human existence in the shadow of something bigger than all of us — the marvels of space and the great unknown.
Olivia Simon is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. DIRECTOR’S CUT appears in print every other Friday.