- Movie Rating -

First Man (2018)

| October 10, 2018

The very first temptation when it comes to First Man is to compare it to The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, the two pinnacle cinematic records of America’s space program.  Thankfully, it doesn’t copy either film nor does it stand down from them.  It is their equal mainly because, narratively-speaking, it goes off in its own direction.  All three films have one thing in common: in focusing in on the fact that being an astronaut during these early years was about as safe as juggling dynamite and chainsaws at the same time while standing on a sheet of ice wearing roller skates.

First Man is a deeply felt look at the mental and physical journey of one Neil Alden Armstrong whose journey into history (according to this movie) was fraught with a long build-up that not only took years but also took a toll on his body that would have killed a lesser man.  He and his fellow astronauts are seen in this movie going through a rigorous exercise of being pushed into jumpsuits, strapping themselves into scary machines, hooked up to bags that would collect their waste, rocked around like they were aboard a broken theme park ride only to be told that they had to wait hours even days to get clearance to launch.  Then, when they are cleared, their spaceship makes deafening noises as it struggles to get off the ground and into the stratosphere.  The moments of clarity when they finally do get to see the majesty of God’s creation are as breathtaking as they are fleeting because everyone onboard knows that a missed signal from their instruments or a missed command from Houston could get them closer to The Almighty sooner than later.

Armstrong is played in the film by Ryan Gosling in a very muted performance that is not unusual if you’ve seen the actor’s previous work.  Yes, he does that thing where the camera finds the side of his face looking off in the distance like a Calvin Klein ad, but in this performance, there is a purpose behind his sullen façade.  Armstrong, as we know, was a very private person and the movie theorizes that part of his motivation for joining the space program was to distract him from the pain of losing his daughter Karen to a malignant brain tumor.  Some years after their child’s death, neither Neil nor Janet is able to pick up the pieces, but at least Neil has work to keep him going.  Janet (played in a good performance by Claire Foy) is either stuck at home, or stuck in the waiting area at NASA awaiting information about whether or not her husband will come back alive.

That’s really where the movie departs from The Right Stuff and Apollo 13.  Those films touched on the anguish of the wives maybe a little bit, but this film really embellishes what such a dangerous job not only did to the body and mind but also to personal lives.  As bad as it is for Neil, the mental anguish of a double loss is even worse for Janet.

These are the elements that I would not have expected from a movie about the first man on the moon.  One might have imagined a movie full of strat-talk, jingoism and lots of American hoo-haw.  But this is not that film, and what surprised me most was that the script by — addresses a very modern criticism about the entire moon landing, that the whole thing was a waste of time and money at a moment when the American culture was coming apart, when blacks and women were demanding a fair hand and, despite the contributions of the women in Hidden Figures neither women nor African-Americans were allowed in the capsule.  My only minor criticism of the film is that this wasn’t developed enough.

I would say that same about the other personnel at NASA.  While the movie doesn’t flesh out the administrators, technicians nor really the other astronauts training with him, I think it is for effect.  The screenplay mainly stays inside Armstrong’s head and conditions him at a distance from those around him.  He is a loner, we know that, and Chazelle wants us to feel that.  His counterpoint is Buzz Aldren (Corey Stoll) who is open, gregarious and ready to play the Aw Shucks roll when the press comes around.  Actually, Aldrin is still like that to this day.  I have a feeling that Armstrong would never have appeared on “The Big Bang Theory.”

But aside from the personal stuff, I want to note that First Man is one Hell of an experience when seen in a theater.  The sound and the visuals are nothing short of a sensory roller coaster.  Chazelle and his production team want us to get inside Neil’s head so that we can feel what this was like.  The collection of noise inside the capsule is jarring when compared to Neil’s emergence onto the lunar surface which is met with deafening silence.  Here Chazelle makes the brilliant choice of simply making it one man’s step instead of backing it up with a lot of music and noise.  The illustration is that this small step was a quiet one, a personal one and whatever you take from it is yours to interpret.  Was it one small step for a man or was it one giant leap for mankind?  Either way, this is one of the best films of the year.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2018) View IMDB Filed in: Drama