First Man tells a well-known story of heroic proportions: The 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, and Neil Armstrong's giant leap for mankind as he became the first man on the moon. But Damien Chazelle's film, which opened to slightly disappointing box office numbers over the weekend, is not your typical hero's journey escapism (which may help explain those box office numbers). This is a film shrouded by the specter and the reality of death, a film that embraces not just the glory and adventure of space travel, but also the silence and loneliness.
"We never treated it specifically like a ghost story, but that idea itself haunted the film," says Chazelle, sitting next to his star Ryan Gosling during a recent visit to the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas. "You couldn't ignore it when you're dealing with someone who lived their life so close to death. I have a hard time at this point looking at the moon and not thinking of ghosts or death in some way. There's something so kind of graveyard like about it."
Mortality looms early in the film, as Armstrong (Gosling) and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) contend with the loss of their young daughter, Karen, to pneumonia. The theme continues throughout, as Armstrong loses NASA friends and colleagues in accidents and tests gone awry. Armstrong is often shown as a solitary figure, literally staring into space as festivities unfold around him. If the film is haunted, so is he, and he feels all the more real because of it.
"Still waters run deep," Gosling says of Armstrong, who died in 2012. "It was exciting that Damien wanted to take such a deep dive into somebody that to a lot of people felt unknowable. There so many layers to him, and his remoteness made it even more interesting. The things he chose not to say were very powerful."
Asked if we might consider First Man an art film, Gosling jokingly makes a shushing gesture, as if to say "Don't tell anyone." Gosling and Chazelle are both steeped in film art; the director, who shot much of the film on hand-held cameras, had his crew watch examples of cinema vérité documentaries from the '60s. When the actors playing the astronauts carried their oxygen tanks Chazelle imagined them as the bible salesmen featured in the classic doc Salesman. "We're sending the salesmen off to the moon," Chazelle jokes.
Space movies have long served as vessels for high style and weighty matters, from the existential ponderings of 2001: A Space Odyssey to the probing character studies of The Right Stuff. For every Apollo 13, a movie about crisis that still has a crowd-pleasing spirit, there's a Solaris, Andrei Tarkovsky's poetic study of a psychologist sleuthing in space (later remade by Steven Soderbergh).
First Man succeeds by splitting the difference. Chazelle is equally adept at challenging audiences (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) and tickling them (La La Land). First Man lets you experience the exaltation and stress, the terror and the triumph, of life as a space pioneer. It digresses, takes its time and sets a mood before landing, which only adds to the sense of mystery and wonder.