First Man | Movie Review

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first man movie review

Damien Chazelle has been on a hot streak the last couple years.  His first two major studio films, Whiplash and La La Land, have garnered critical and mainstream praise and yielded award-winning performances from its actors.  His directing style is as mesmerizing as his appreciation of jazz music.  You feel connected to his characters and the environment he creates.  Even when he presents a fantasy moment, it’s out of a sense of emotional realism.

When I found out Chazelle’s next feature would be about Neil Armstrong, I was excited for two reasons.  One is that he is trying something new and tackling a non-fiction character, which has its own set of challenges and expectations.  Another is that I have always admired Neil Armstrong since I was a kid.  I don’t know why I gravitate to stories about space and constantly look up at the stars each night to remind myself of all that mystery left to explore, but I know that Armstrong has a lot to do with it.  The man is an icon for reaching the surface of the moon first and cementing his name in the history books for eternity.  Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were also there and deserve an equal share for the success of that mission.  You could say that any astronaut could have completed this journey, but after watching this film I’m certain that it had to be Neil Armstrong.

In First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle, Neil (Ryan Gosling) is a civilian pilot in the early 1960’s testing out new planes for the military.  Planes that can reach altitudes beyond our atmosphere.  When a space program called Gemini is announced by NASA, Neil applies to be on the crew.  His wife Janet (Claire Foy) keeps their house in order and takes care of their two children.  When tragedy strikes Neil’s family, he dives deeper into his work and places almost his entire focus into realizing NASA’s mission of reaching the moon before the Soviets.  The government has a particular interest in seeing this happen as well, but they also have to convince the country that the money spent on this venture is worth it.

Some of Neil’s fellow astronauts on this journey include Elliott See (Patrick Fugit), Edward White (Jason Clarke), Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber), Pete Conrad (Ethan Embry), Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas).  The mission to get into space and stay there for any amount of time is both daunting and dangerous.  It’s up to Neil to navigate those variables and find a safe passage into the unknown, while also sorting out his troubles at home.  Sometimes the hardest mystery to solve is yourself.

Much of this story is focused solely on Neil Armstrong and his family.  You would expect that since the title is First Man.  With each new scene, we peel away a layer of the legend that surrounds Neil Armstrong and get the man himself.  A father and husband with so much emotional weight on his shoulders.  He is a reserved man who doesn’t say much, but what he does say is meaningful and sincere.  You can tell he cares deeply about his wife and children, but he fails to recognize or acknowledge the pain surrounding them, nor does he understand how to deal with it if he could.

Ryan Gosling gives us this subtle range of emotions with ease it seems and always leaves an emotion or two hiding for us to find.  Janet Armstrong is a pillar of determination and compassion.  She recognizes Neil’s shortcomings and overcomes them.  She will not let this family fail or succumb to its grief.  The mission to reach the moon is very important to Neil, but for Janet, that mission comes second.  Claire Foy is magnificent in this role and I was as attached to her character as I was to Neil.  I always wanted to be back at the lab or in space seeing history get made, but when Janet is on screen I put those thoughts aside and wanted so much for this family to make it.

I was prepared to have a visceral reaction to the rocket and outer space scenes, yet I was still caught off guard by how intense those moments in the cockpit are.  One thing I noticed right away is how noisy it is.  A commercial plane takes off and it’s practically a muffled roar, but in a rocket ship, it’s a deafening scream of engines and wind.  The ever increasing vibration of the ship blurs the senses and makes you crave a steady image.  It’s so maddening that you don’t know if it will ever stop.  Until you leave the atmosphere and in an instant all that goes away.  Then the real fun begins.

While the family of Neil Armstrong is front and center, we still get a very good journey of the Gemini and Apollo programs.  Some of the moments are brought up in the movie Apollo 13 and more recently Hidden Figures.  The decade was a triumph for space travel and exploration, but it was also an achievement for science and mathematics.  It wasn’t just pushing a button to go into space.  You had to calculate speed, velocity, trajectory, and all manner of formulas to properly solve each mission.  Sometimes you didn’t have the problem or the answer until you were already experiencing it up there, but all that training and preparing allowed you to quickly analyze the situation and make it through.  An example of a brilliant mind being used to its full potential.

Two astronauts that are worth mentioning, because of their scenes in the film, are Edward White and Buzz Aldrin.  Edward White is played by Jason Clarke and he portrays him with a calm demeanor that is willing to help Neil with any problem.  He also shares Neil’s enthusiasm for the program and hopefully being selected for the first mission to the moon.  You constantly get this quiet thrill within them that is just dying to burst forth, but they hold onto it because they know there is just so much more work to do.

Buzz Aldrin is played by Corey Stoll and he conveys Aldrin’s arrogance and lack of tactfulness very well.  Aldrin is a nice, intelligent man who will have your back.  He also has a way of putting his foot in his mouth.  It’s an interesting contrast with the rest of the personalities on screen because most of them are cordial and not confrontational, besides Janet.  Neil actually takes stressful situations in stride and handles Aldrin as any friend would.  By being honest.  Relationships are built on honesty and I think that’s what this movie does well.  It allows the bonds between the astronauts to develop over time and you become invested as it progresses.

The cinematography as always is amazing.  Every moment is carefully framed and brings you into the film while also astounding you.  The use of lighting in certain scenes evokes a feeling of discovery.  We are part of this mission and seeing things for the first time as they are.

The music is by Justin Hurwitz.  Another name from Damien Chazelle’s Rolodex of creatives.  The score Hurwitz provides is as inspiring as the story.  It has lots of heart and intensity.  It would have been easy to let the visuals do all the work, but Hurwitz does what a good composer can do and compliments those visuals with music that both enhances and embraces every scene.  I know I could have loved this movie without any score at all, but this is Damien Chazelle and music is life to him.  

I find it hard to locate a flaw in this film because even though it approaches 2.5 hours there is not a scene that goes to waste.  I am invested in the personal story of Neil and the history of the mission to the moon unfolding.  I will say that even though I still felt connected to Neil, others might not take to his quiet presence.  He can come off emotionally distant throughout.  It certainly doesn’t match up with the vision of a man who would strive to reach the moon first. We are, however, talking about a three-dimensional human being that has had many experiences prior to reaching the moon.  Some good and some terrible, but all of them made him who he is and helped him and his family figures out how to move forward.  Not every historical figure jumps off the page, but it’s his words and actions that give him gravitas.

First Man is not the story of a legend.  It’s the story of a father and husband who happens to also do amazing things in American and world history.  Ryan Gosling gives an excellent performance as Neil, and Claire Foy is a standout as well.  I recommend seeing this on a massive screen with a big audience.  You can watch this at home one day, but you should cement in your mind the images and sounds you felt when you saw this in a theater for the first time.  If you are looking for a movie about a man walking on the moon, you won’t be disappointed.  If you are also looking for a movie about a man that takes everything that life throws at him, has a wife that can help that man see clearly in spite of his anguish, and challenge the world to think differently, you will be left inspired and entertained.

About First Man

Synopsis:A look at the life of the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969.

Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Josh Singer

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Pablo Schreiber, Ethan Embry, Ciaran Hinds, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll

Rated: PG-13

Runtime: 2 Hour, 21 Minutes