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Film Review—The Ordeals Of The ‘First Man’ On The Moon

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in "First Man."

Posted Monday, October 15, 2018 - 1:35 pm

By Adam Sherman

“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” With those, words, Neil Armstrong entered history, as the first human being to set foot on the Moon. And yet, while many know about the famous flight itself, and its significance to both American and global history, not as many know the man himself, as Armstrong was perceived by many to be a recluse after Apollo 11. It wasn’t until after turning down offers from other authors that Armstrong consented to a biography by James R. Hansen – First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong was released in 2005. Inevitably, the rights to a film adaptation of the book about one of the most important space pioneers were snatched up quickly, with Clint Eastwood attached. Now, over a decade after the book’s release – and over half-a-decade after Armstrong’s death – does the film finally hit the silver screen with Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) at the helm, and Ryan Gosling (also La La Land, Blade Runner 2049) in the space suit. But does First Man take flight?

Absolutely.

While based on the aforementioned biography of the same name, First Man mainly focuses on Armstrong’s personal life during his time in the Gemini and Apollo programs in NASA. While we do get flashes and brief segues about the impact NASA’s operations have on the larger world, and vice-versa, Chazelle chooses mainly to focus on the perspectives of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), and Janet Shearon (Claire Foy), his then-wife, as well as his friendship with Ed White (Jason Clarke), the first American to walk in space and victim of Apollo 1’s pre-launch disaster.

Gosling does a fantastic job portraying Armstrong as someone who seems cool, calm, and collected on the outside whilst also clearly conveying how much trouble he’s having trying to keep his heartbreak over the various tragedies visited upon his loved ones from tearing him apart. Claire Foy does wonderfully, portraying Jane as someone whose willingness to express her fears and worries does nothing to stop her from putting her foot down when need be. These two are undeniably the film’s stars, and the emotional core around which the story is told. They clearly still love each other, but have clearly experienced friction due to their daughter’s death via brain tumor, and risk of Armstrong not coming home. Jason Clarke also does admirably as Ed White, forming an odd, but somewhat understandable rapport with Gosling’s Armstrong – enough so that his death has clear impact on not just Neil, but his family as well. None of the cast stand out as well as the three aforementioned stars, but they do well enough in their roles. And in such a personal story, that’s probably for the better.

The personal nature of First Man is particularly emphasized by the cinematography and music. In spacecraft, the camera is mainly focused on portraying just how tight, cramped, and dark the ships are, conveying the claustrophobia Armstrong experiences above the earth’s surface with only a fellow astronaut or two for company. This is especially apparent during Gemini 8, creating a sense of tension and terror that makes you fear for Armstrong in spite of history ensuring his survival. Justin Hurwitz’s score comes off as rather subdued, compared to what one would expect from most space-focused films (and even in comparison to Hurwitz and Chazelle’s previous collaborations on La La Land and Whiplash).

The personal nature of this story actually connects to one of the film’s “controversial” elements, or lack thereof. Much hullaballoo has been made over Chazelle choosing not to portray Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s planting of the American flag on the Moon. However, such a scene would come off as rather extraneous in face of the film’s ultimate theme – finding triumph in the face of personal tragedy; demonstrated by one of the final major scenes of Armstrong on the Moon being about his connection with his daughter, rather than the tooting of a nationalistic horn. And First Man is most certainly a triumph.

Take one small step for yourself and go see this movie. 

9/10

First Man is distributed by Universal Pictures, and landed in theater on October 12.

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