First Man's ending is not what you expect. In fact, First Man as a movie is not what you expect. But its final moments - Neil Armstrong's iconic Moon landing and his bittersweet return to Earth - are most certainly some of its most perplexing.
The latest movie from director Damien Chazelle is, of course, the story of Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11 and the first man on the Moon. We follow Ryan Gosling as Neil and Claire Foy as wife Janet from his early days as a pilot, joining NASA, training and time on the Gemini program - including the near-fatal Gemini 8 mission - all building towards the fate-redefining Apollo 11 mission. But as much as this is a movie about the Space Race, everything about Chazelle's storytelling approach is more about finding the man within the historic achievement for the space agency, America, and all of humanity.
Related: Read Screen Rant's First Man Review
That's what makes the ending of First Man so beguiling. The plot reaches its close in the expected way, yet the story is something far more insular. Here's what First Man's ending really means.
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What Happens At The End Of First Man
Obviously, the final act of First Man is the Moon landing itself, recreated entirely in-camera to stunning effect. As has been made abundantly clear following the film's festival premiere, though, it's a somewhat skewed take. We see Neil take the small step and make his "giant leap" proclamation, but aside from collecting dirt samples, there's not much of the expected ephemera: needlessly controversial, the US flag is never shown. Instead, the film focuses on Neil's alone time and complete tranquility at the Little West Crater. There, he lifts his vizor and takes in the isolation before dropping his dead daughter Karen's bracelet into the crater.
Back on Earth, Neil and Buzz are put into quarantine - as first men, there's no knowledge of what they could bring back - and the film finally embraces the importance of its events: the duo watch a replay of John F. Kennedy's famous speech vowing to go to the Moon by the end of the 1960s, a fantastical goal they've now achieved.
Finally, in its last scene, First Man returns to just Neil, reuniting him with Janet. They look at each other in silence, awed by the big and small of what's happened, and embrace as best they can: holding hands up against the glass separating them.
First Man Wasn't About The Moon, It Was About Neil Armstrong's Daughter
While First Man is ostensibly a biopic, it's a much more intimate and personal character study than most celebrations of real-life figures. Similar to how he made an ode to musicals and the Golden Age of Hollywood only to flip it to be a blunt meditation on modern relationships and success with La La Land, here Damien Chazelle takes the true story of landing on the Moon and hones in on the hidden grief behind Neil Armstrong's drive.
After the opening atmosphere bounce, the film comes to focus not on Armstrong the headstrong pilot but on Neil's relationship with his dying daughter, Karen. Much of the first half is centered on him repressing that grief, cutting off a part of himself from everyone, be they new colleagues or his loyal wife and loving sons. The deep-seated impact of Karen's death in First Man is unavoidable, even as he becomes unilaterally focused on the Apollo mission. Further, First Man heavily implies that it's this aspect that drives Neil, keeping him pushing through missions-gone-wrong and the suffocating weight of expectation - something that lingers mostly in the background of his and the film's perception. Everything about First Man is focused on this, from the internalized shooting style to its Tree of Life free-flowing storytelling.
The masterstroke of Chazelle's approach comes in the Moon landing itself. A marvel of technical filmmaking it may be, the purpose is to serve as a gigantic representation of letting go; literally with the bracelet, but also on a more personal level. In achieving the goal he used as a coping mechanism, a more-alone-than-anyone Neil is finally gifted his introspection and able to accept the unimaginable tragedy.
What The Final Scene Of First Man Means
Where Chazelle's subversion of traditional biopic tropes really comes to the fore, though, is in First Man's final scene. Instead of the typical text cards explaining what Neil, Buzz et al did after their mission, we get a lone scene of Neil and Janet reuniting. It's understated, wordless, shot in lingering close takes - and so cathartically moving. He's a man who's gone further than any other, risking his life - hammered home by the unused NASA press release - to achieve an amazing feat. This scene is them reconnecting after being so distanced.
But it's not just the distance of the journey that's being addressed. While Neil's journey has been shown alongside dizzying space theatrics, his relationship with Janet has been one of love over an immense metaphorical distance too. He's never truly opened up about Karen's death, and while nothing is said here, for the first time in the movie there's a sense of true connection. She reaches out to him and he willingly accepts.
Page 2 of 2: The Real Meaning Of First Man's Story
- First Man (2018) release date: Oct 12, 2018