It's no surprise that Damien Chazelle's First Man was released in award season; it is, after all, the biography of an American hero (Neil Armstrong) from an Oscar-winning director (for La La Land). But the October release is appropriate for another reason: At its best moments, this biopic feels like a horror movie.
No, Chazelle (adapting James R. Hansen's biography) doesn't depict masked killers stalking the first man on the moon. But he does embrace the aesthetic of the sublime, as Edmund Burke defined it: the fascination and terror caused by contemplating something that makes us feel ant-size. Space is such a thing — perhaps the thing. And whenever Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) punches through the atmosphere, Chazelle adopts a ruthlessly first-person perspective that makes us feel the terrifying immensity of the realms he traverses.
Take the midpoint sequence depicting the Gemini 8 docking mission. As Armstrong and his copilot wait for launch in their claustrophobia-inducing craft, a fly buzzes around them; a seagull streaks past the window. Seconds later, amid tremendous shaking and shuddering, the blue sky behind that portal goes black; the Earth and its creatures become memories.
Portrayed almost entirely from Armstrong's perspective, with only occasional exterior cutaways to give us the satisfaction of seeing a rocket blast off, the scene is as dislocating as any interdimensional journey in science fiction. It's a white-knuckle set piece even before the Gemini starts rolling uncontrollably, nearly sending both astronauts into oblivion.
It doesn't matter that we know how Armstrong's missions ended; the filmmaker's immersive approach renders them as chilling and riveting as anything in the fictional Gravity. When the film returns to Earth, it's inevitably less enthralling, though the style remains consistent: lots of handheld camera work and a sense that we're seeing history play out through necessarily limited perspectives.
Viewers expecting an overview of the space program and its colorful characters, à la The Right Stuff, will be disappointed; First Man is very much about Armstrong, and Armstrong isn't very communicative. He's portrayed as highly competent, moody and withdrawn, displaying emotion only when something reminds him of the wrenching loss of his daughter (Lucy Stafford).
We never learn much more about the astronaut or his somewhat-more-demonstrative wife (Claire Foy), yet both actors hint at the reserves of fear and frustration hidden behind their stoic all-American façades. From suburbia, Janet monitors the progress of the moon mission in scenes that effectively convey the same surreal contrast as that Gemini lift-off.
There's a sly humor in scenes such as the press conference in which Armstrong refuses to give reporters the human-interest sound bite they crave; later, he treats his own sons like those prying journalists. Is the film a tribute to strong-and-silent masculinity or a gentle satire of it? You be the judge. Likewise, in a montage that covers the unrest of the '60s and opposition to the space program, Chazelle doesn't seem to take a side.
With its resolutely experiential approach, First Man is no myth-making machine. But if Chazelle goes light on American hero iconography, he also forces the audience to appreciate anew what they may have taken for granted in the long interval since NASA's greatest triumphs. By demonstrating just how terrifying it was to go to the moon, he reminds us that: Holy shit, we went to the moon! That triumph may be bittersweet in the face of fresh warnings about the state of the Earth, but this is still the rare fright flick with a happy ending.