You should know up front, First Man is not the story of a patriot or a hero or any other unnecessary labels people and history books have placed on astronaut Neil Armstrong (played with a cool, pleasant reserve by Ryan Gosling). The only labels that mattered to him—a pilot with engineering experience—were the ones that got him into the NASA space program tasked with landing a man on the moon and bringing him back safely. This was a years-in-the-making mission that just happened to be a job he gladly gave his all to, in order to support his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), and their children. He didn’t do this work for glory—there was no guarantee he would be the one to go on that first mission to the moon—but he was driven to do the best possible work and perform all tasks perfectly in the end. It’s remarkable to watch someone so committed to their work who also seems like a decent person, but that was Armstrong.
Director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) and screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post), working from the book by James R. Hansen, takes an essay-like approach to Armstrong’s life story. Told using a great deal of tight closeups that serve to put us literally in Armstrong’s headspace as both a test pilot and astronaut, getting tossed around under unimaginable pressure while coping with the resulting vibration and noise. But that’s the job, and Armstrong never complained. Perhaps his reeled-in emotions made him an ideal astronaut but they caused a great deal of friction between him and Janet, especially after the sudden, unexpected death of their only daughter—an event Armstrong buried so deep that Janet becomes concerned for his mental health.
First Man also deals honestly with the loss of life during the Apollo program and the ways in which fellow astronauts and their families coped with death. The film features such an array of talented and capable actors that it’s impossible to single out particularly worthy performances, although the friendship and support system that develops between the Armstrongs and Edward Higgins White (Jason Clarke) and his wife Pat (Olivia Hamilton) is especially moving at various points throughout the movie. Also present to various degrees are the likes of Christopher Abbott, Ethan Embry, Ciaran Hinds, Kyle Chandler, Pablo Schreiber (as Jim Lovell), Shea Whigham, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, and Cory Michael Smith. (If you don’t blink and don’t mind not hearing her speak, Chicago’s own Kris Swanberg makes a brief appearance here as well.) One standout performer is Corey Stoll as the plain-spoken Buzz Aldrin, who is constantly “saying what everyone is thinking,” even as most wish that he wouldn’t.
As quickly as the actual space program came together to get people on the moon, the film benefits from moving at a slow-and-steady pace. It’s clear that Armstrong never becomes frustrated at any new setback as long as it happens on the ground and not as any part of a live mission. Of late, Gosling has made a name for himself playing cool, contemplative cats, but Neil Armstrong was also an intelligent man, who listened to his wife with as much commitment as he did his NASA bosses.
If there are themes that come out of First Man, they aren’t ones concerning patriotism or the American spirit; they’re much more intimate and personal—sacrifice, concentration, the ability to put every emotion in your body and channel or bury it so that it doesn’t interfere with the mission. Those are the things that got us to the moon in July 1969. I highly recommend catching this film in IMAX, since the scenes on the lunar surface were shot using IMAX cameras, and they are breathtaking. In fact, every sequence here that required special effects is flawless in its execution, and quite often beautifully composed and lit by cinematographer Linus Sandgren.
First Man isn’t really a film that overtly comments on what it’s about. You’re encouraged to sit back and allow this very triumphant version of history unfold for you. Any messages or themes you may spot were likely ones you were looking for, which is not to say Chazelle has included thoughts about what makes a strong marriage or a great astronaut in his movie. But this filmmaker is looking deeper than labels to make distinctions between these trailblazers and us mere mortals. The film also isn’t afraid to get technical in the name of keeping its science and lingo authentic, which only adds to the richness of the masterful storytelling.
First Man is certainly one of the most compelling and inherently dramatic works of the year.
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