Review: “First Man”

3.5 out of 5 stars.

The first man to walk on the moon.  As far as real life space stories go, it doesn’t get any bigger than that.  And yet director Damien Chazelle’s new film “First Man,” which details astronaut Neil Armstrong’s life and career from his entry into the space program at NASA to his historic first steps on the moon, makes that event seem so intimate and fragile.  Moreover, that event takes second place to the film’s main focus, a character study of Armstrong that tears down any conceptions that he was a larger than life hero and presents him as he was: a man.

Ryan Gosling portrays Armstrong in the film, which opens in 1961 and spans the course of the decade leading up to and just after the Apollo 11 lunar landing.  Engineer and test pilot Armstrong is invited to train as one of the astronauts at NASA and accepts the position as a new start following the death of his young daughter Karen.  The constant pressure of the space race and the potential danger of every mission and test the astronauts take part in takes a toll on Armstrong that extends to his friends and family, including his two young sons and his wife Janet (Claire Foy).

First Man 2
Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong

Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong is a humanizing one.  He never lets his family in on what he is truly feeling, but the audience does get glimpses of it.  He breaks down in private at his daughter’s funeral, and afterward sporadically sees visions of her.  He focuses on his work instead of focusing on his pain, which shuts him off from his family.  The flip side of that is that he often comes off as so cold, it makes it difficult for the audience to become emotionally invested in his story, particularly as the film progresses to what should be a thrilling climax.  The true heart of the story resides in Janet, who Foy portrays perfectly as a woman who loves her family deeply, but becomes increasingly frustrated with Neil constantly putting his life in danger.  A number of key events involving the supporting cast also raise the stakes.  There are a number of great actors playing other well-known players in the space program, although they don’t get the amount of screen time or recognition they deserve.  These include Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton, and Jason Clarke as Ed White.

As much of the film takes on a more personal focus, “First Man” isn’t as tense or exciting as other space movies like “The Right Stuff” or “Apollo 13.”  And yet the space scenes—any scene where there is flight involved, in fact—are the most striking aspect of the movie by far.  Instead of making everything shiny and sleek, Chazelle brings a gritty realism to every scene, in both visuals and sound.  We get a firsthand look at just how unglamorous these astronauts’ jobs were, at just how claustrophobic the capsules were, and how anything could go wrong at any time.  It’s a constant reminder that, just as the astronauts who set foot on the moon were mere men, it was also human hands who constructed the spacecraft that took them there.  All of the technology looks old; the controls stick; the spacecraft rattle to the point where it seems like they are going to fall apart at any second.  Sound is used so effectively in all of these sequences.  Take, for example, the film’s striking opening scene, depicting Armstrong doing a test flight in the upper atmosphere.  The sound roars as his plane shakes with the pressure, combined with Armstrong’s breathing.  But the sound also cuts out at the appropriate moments, like when Apollo 11 comes within sight of the moon.  Chazelle’s previous two films have been based around music, with 2016’s “La La Land” being a full on movie musical, and there a several sequences that take on almost a ballet-like quality.  Chazelle shoots the Apollo 11 preparing to land on the moon like a dance, just another approach that makes “First Man” look and feel like no other movie about space has before.

“First Man” is an exceptionally well-made film that works as a character study of astronaut Neil Armstrong.  It takes a page out of history that almost everyone knows and makes it fresh and different.  Chazelle has already proved his adeptness at crafting movies that are simultaneously intimate and epic in his short career as a feature director, but for everything about it that makes it great and unique, “First Man” lacks the personality and warmth to fully engage with the audience and make it truly memorable.

Runtime: 141 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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