First Man Movie Review
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
There are some moments that are bigger than the people involved. Nothing exemplifies this better than Neil Armstrong’s quote as he took the first step onto the moon. FIRST MAN magnifies the man behind the step as we follow the life of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) in the roughly eight years that lead up to that historical moment on July 20, 1969.
Borrowing few elements from films like THE RIGHT STUFF and APOLLO 13, FIRST MAN separates itself by focusing more on the personal story rather than the actual event. It’s less about the heroics and more about the effort and cost it took to achieve the goal. Rather than capturing Armstrong as a legend, FIRST MAN chooses to reveal the humanity that makes him and all the astronauts along with their families just like you and me.
But that’s not to say we don’t get any of the action or entertainment. The sets, costumes, and overall detail in art direction is magnificent, capturing place and time beautifully. It’s not just the grandiose story from screenwriter Josh Singer based on the book from James R. Hansen, but how the story is patiently told. Director Damien Chazelle (WHIPLASH, LA LA LAND) crafts an awesome and visceral experience for his third feature film, putting the audience into Neil Armstrong’s shoes as we literally get a first person view of his first moon footprint.
There’s an immediate intimacy about FIRST MAN as Chazelle keeps the camera tight on Ryan Gosling’s Armstrong. The balance between the deep bottled-up passion behind Gosling’s eyes and the atmosphere within the confines of an aircraft surrounding the character through the cinematographer’s grainy lens creates a picture that feels alive. While this moment in American history took place more than a decade before I was born, I felt as though I was watching events unfold live for the first time. I ultimately know what’s going to happen, yet I was somehow filled with tension at the edge of my seat as different Apollo missions lift off into the air. The terrifying rattles within the rocket ship and the devastating loss of life are felt emotionally creating an intimate portrait of what happened and what these people went through.
The parallels that happen within Armstrong’s home life and his work with NASA gives an understanding to the characters as people rather than reinforcing the unearthly heroism. Claire Foy is perfect as Armstrong’s wife Janet. She is the strength at home that makes his work possible. She is the unsung hero that battles through Neil’s emotional and physical absense, trying to raise their children, overcoming tragedy, while being the face of the supportive wife for the public. Ryan Gosling is also at the top of his game with a quiet restraint who isn’t always likable but honest in his sadness and focus. Whether it be the taxpayer’s money, the families, or the actual lives of men lost, FIRST MAN doesn’t shy away from the questionable costs of our efforts. However, the film also honors the sacrifice many people gave to achieve such an important moment in history.
When compared to other major Hollywood films that followed our early journeys into space, FIRST MAN might feel slightly less grand in the blockbuster sense of the word. However, the emotional power of FIRST MAN is undeniable. Rated PG-13 with a 141-minute run time, FIRST MAN reveals an artfully tender side that makes the story more tangibly incredible. The importance of family is never more apparent when looking at the man rather than mankind.
When interviewing to become an astronaut with NASA, Armstrong is asked about a personal family tragedy and if he thinks it will impact his work. Armstrong’s response, “It would be illogical to think it would not.”