As Neil Armstrong, Ryan Gosling is the Sun which everyone else revolves around in the film First Man. Many movies have explored NASA and the space program of the fifties and sixties. But none of note have focused on the personal struggles and sacrifices of one astronaut. But in First Man, director Damien Chazelle brings us the story of Neil Armstrong’s long road that ended with him being the first to take a stroll on the lunar surface.
Making the Man
We join Neil’s story in the cockpit of an X-15, a supersonic jet that he, inadvertently, takes to the edge of the atmosphere. While this first impression makes it seem like we’re in for 2+ hours of reckless fly-boy antics, we are quickly put in our place. The episode is used to show us the dangers that come with semi-routine test pilot missions.
From there we are introduced to Neil’s struggle as the father of his dying, two-year old daughter. This is a seminal event that will drive his actions as a pilot and as a family man for years to come.
Keeping It Real
It’s hard to create a suspenseful movie when we all know the outcome. It’s even titled with the end result: Neil Armstrong was the “First Man” to walk on the moon.
But we don’t know the struggles, both personal and professional, that he faced along the way.
We all know, in the back of our minds, that space exploration is dangerous. But this movie demonstrates it by showing it to us from the astronaut’s perspective. Damien takes us inside the tight capsule that was put on top of a fire blazing rocket that thrust them into space. The space is so tight, it makes a seat on Spirit Airlines seem spacious.
We hear the creaking of the capsule. The kind of sound that if you car made it you’d take it into the shop the next morning. We see the manual switches. We watch as mission control looks up on paper what an alert or alarm means. We wouldn’t go from JFK to Philly on a plane that primitive. But these guys were going into orbit and the moon in these things. They had to inspire visceral reactions in these guys and we feel it as voyeurs to their fear.
Claire Foy (best known as young Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown on Netflix) plays Neil’s long-suffering wife, Janet. The movie shows her treating her as someone on the periphery of his life. She is used to give us some insight into what the wives and children of the astronauts go through. This is the weakest part of the film.
Yes, Janet is part of his life, but the lives of the families are filled with enough tumult to have their own movie. The other wives don’t get enough time for us to emotionally connect.
To that end, for much of the film, Janet is seen much like a comet in Neil’s life, one that comes into view at predictable times and then disappears. And that meant Claire was being desperately underused as an actress until one pivotal scene. Before Neil leaves for his moon trip, she forces a Come-To-Jesus moment because, you know, there’s a good chance he’ll be coming to Jesus very soon.
In this scene every emotion is unleashed. Her frustration. The kids’ fears. His inability to connect with his surviving children. Every moment led up to this and every moment after was affected by it. And Claire Foy is everything.
If she had more than this one meaty, meaningful scene, she’d be a lock for a Supporting Actress nomination.
Over The Moon
Of course, we’re all here for the trip. And this is where Chazelle’s directing shines brightest.
Throughout the film, he worked to keep everything as authentic as possible. With a few variations to the timeline and a very educated guess as to a memorial Neil left on the moon, he was pretty successful.
But he went beyond by eschewing a green screen for much of the space flight, instead using footage on a mega-screen behind the encapsulated actors. For the scenes on the moon and in much of space, we are treated to silence. There is no oxygen in space so there is no noise.
As fear inducing as the creaky capsules were, the silence is as eerily scary.
This may not be the best picture of the year, but so far it’s the best directed. Ryan and Damien worked together on La La Land, and both up their game here, making First Man a worthy follow up to their movie that, for a hot minute, was Best Picture.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
A Moon Shot. This Gin & Clamato concoction will have you feeling exactly the same as the Gemini pilots after their first ride on the three-axis simulator.