Review: First Man

Movies about space have been very popular in recent years. From the jaw dropping visuals in Interstellar to the lighthearted The Martian, stories about mankind’s exploration into space have brought in big name actors, big name directors, and even bigger budgets.

La La Land director Damien Chazelle is the latest filmmaker to tell a story above the clouds in his latest film, First Man. Just like Whiplash wasn’t about music school and La La Land wasn’t about jazz, First Man isn’t about the space or the Moon landing. It’s a film laser focused on Neil Armstrong the man, not Neil Armstrong the astronaut.

Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong in this story that follows him from his early years at NASA, to being commander of Gemini 8, and concluding with 1969’s Apollo 11 Moon landing.

The film opens with Armstrong piloting a spaceflight and he’s almost bumped out into space by the atmosphere. This heart-pounding scene set the tone for the entire film. Chazelle puts the audience in the cockpit with Armstrong and other astronauts as they experience the highs and lows of spaceflight.  The sound of heavy breathing and bending metal has never been more terrifying, even with the knowledge that Armstrong survives these missions.

That scene, and many similar scenes that follow, captures how horrifying attempting to fly to space was. The spaceships sound like they’re made out of Jiffy Pop foil and every landing seems like an almost crash that turned into a landing in the last second.

From the grueling training to the uncertainty of space flight, the story showcases how these factors impacted Armstrong and his relationship with his family. It never seemed as if Armstrong was having a good time or able to capture how big the moment was. Armstrong was stressed and the story doesn’t let you forget that.  Gosling plays Armstrong as a man who wants to do good work for NASA but understands there’s a real chance he might die, and if he does succeed he might not make it home from the moon. There was a cloud of death that hovered over Armstrong and the mission that never really went away.

Armstrong is also a man with a bigger-than-life job. He still has to go home and be a husband to his wife and a father to his kids. Some days, that’s not easy for Armstrong or his fellow astronauts to do.

The Crown’s Claire Foy plays Armstrong’s wife Janet. She’s the only person keeping Armstrong grounded, even when he’s working among the stars. Foy is great and has some fantastic moments. None of them are better than when she confronts Armstrong right before the mission to the moon.

First Man wouldn’t be a Chazelle movie without stunning visuals. The best sequence happens during the third act with multiple shots of the Apollo 11 shuttle launch. The beautiful bright orange with the blue black drop is stunning. Once the astronauts are on the moon, the moon surface against the blackness of space is even more breathtaking. Chazelle has a way of capturing tiny moments and making them feel larger than life.

One of the best and unexpected things the film does is use of the real moon landing audio once they touch down. After being wrapped up in a beautiful film for two hours, the real audio is a reminder that you’re watching real people and real events that impacted their lives.

The story is paced well, yet feels 15-20 mins too long. Three or four less beautiful shots of the moon or shots of Gosling brooding into the distance could’ve shaved off a few minutes.

First Man is a fun movie about space and a fantastic movie about Neil Armstrong and how terrifying the mission was for everyone involved. Chazelle strips away the romance we often have with history to show a real person dealing with stress at work – his work happens to be flying to space.

Grade: B+