First Man is a big film about the small things that went into an enormous event.
It’s no spoiler that the climax here is Neil Armstrong’s 1969 walk on the moon. For the first 90 minutes, though, First Man holds back on the inherent drama of that premise.
It follows Neil (Ryan Gosling) as he makes his way through the NASA ranks, and at home as he mourns the death of his young daughter. It spends time on a bunch of promising missions that go nowhere, and on complex questions the engineers will have to solve. There’s some action sprinkled in there, and a few precious moments of euphoria. Mostly, it’s sweating the small stuff.
That choice is puzzling at first, even frustrating: We know the guy gets to the moon, so let’s get on with it already! Why are we wasting time with all this minutiae?
But those tedious concerns and disappointing dead ends are exactly the point. First Man is about work, and more specifically about the enormous amount of work (and luck) that goes into an achievement as momentous as the moon landing. It demands patience, but it gave back what I put into it several times over.
Director Damien Chazelle keeps his eye on the unromantic details that usually get glossed over in retellings of historical events. Literally: Much of this movie is composed of shots of dials, switches, and the top half of Gosling’s face. The vast expanse of outer space is usually shown from the ground, or from the dinky scratched-up windows of a rocket.
Likewise, the emotions in this movie tend to be muted. Neil weeps for his daughter Karen early on, then rarely brings her up again after that. Her death is simply the cloud hanging over everything that he or his wife Janet (an underused Claire Foy) does. He’s so reserved, even repressed, that even after two hours he feels like an enigma.
First Man doesn’t just show us what it looks like to go to the moon. It considers how it must have felt to go to the moon.
All of which just means that when First Man does go big, it feels immense. I saw the film in IMAX, and for much of its runtime I wondered why they’d bothered – the jumbo screen wasn’t really adding anything to the shaky view from inside a cramped spaceship, or the extreme close-ups of rivets and screws.
Then when the IMAX sequence kicked in, and I knew right away that I’d be seeing this again when it opened, and on the biggest IMAX screen I could find.
First Man doesn’t just show us what it looks like to go to the moon. It considers how it must have felt to go to the moon, after years of fretting and fine-tuning and trying not to think too hard about the fact that anything and everything could go wrong at exactly the worst moment. I can’t speak to how Armstrong actually felt in that moment, and neither can Chazelle. But watching a simulation of that moment, I felt overwhelmed.
Here is the Apollo 11 mission presented not as solitary and singular success or the culmination of some dramatic destiny, but as the result of a hundred, a thousand, a million calculations and failures and disappointments and incremental revelations. And here is a movie that knows that all the waiting and working is what makes the payoff worth it.