The moon is both a memory and a dream-quest in First Man, Damien Chazelle's epic about the life of Neil Armstrong. A tense, terse drama that plunges us headlong and handheld into the high-risk world of the space race in the 1960s, the film spares few moments for reflection or reverie. Except, that is, when it comes to the moon itself, which functions in the film as a poetic presence — a luminous, distant beacon in the night sky -- as well as a forbidding reality, the impossible goal at the end of all those treacherous tests and mind-bending calculations. The whole movie could be seen as an attempt to bring these two extremes together -- to make the dream a tactile reality.
The chief tonal inspiration for First Man seems to be Armstrong himself. Far from the media-friendly hero that everyone wanted, the first human to walk on the moon was a quiet, get-the-job done professional with little time for sentiment or niceties. When we first meet Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), he's in the middle of an experimental flight in a small, clanging plane, rising above the clouds, trying not to bounce off the atmosphere. He remains stoic throughout the deadly test, as well as through an early tragedy at home: In a brief but heartbreaking series of images, we see his young daughter Karen's death from cancer. Neil is constantly on the phone with doctors, his notebook filled with information about the girl's illness; after she dies, we see him clear his desk. That may seem like a cold way to represent the most horrific of events, but as performed by Gosling, the moment is shattering.