Like many young boys, when I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut. However, at 14 I gave up on the dream when learned that in order to go to space I had to have perfect vision. (I would later have to get a waiver to join the Navy because my right eye was so bad.) My husband got as close as being nominated to the program and might have been flown the shuttle if he had been picked. Needless to say, we both still dream of going to space and idolize the first man to walk on the moon. Alas, this review is not about us or even Mr. Armstrong but the movie made regarding his journey to be one of the most famous people in history.
First Man is based on a book by the same name, the official biography of Neil Armstrong and is reportedly quite faithful as an adaptation. Ryan Gosling plays the quiet, controlled leading man so accurately that the creators had to include more scenes of him being tender so he didn’t come off as a robot. Claire Foy is equally brilliant in her portrayal of Neil’s first wife, Janet Armstrong (née Shearon), trying to stay sane and hold her family together. The chemistry between them and the rest of the cast seems almost natural. The cinematography is truly astounding from start to finish with the extensive use of hand-held cameras, constant shaking in moments of danger, and expansive shots when necessary. Some may consider this jarring, but it made me feel like I was right there with Neil, seeing the world through his eyes.
The movie begins with some pretty harrowing events that help shape Mr. Armstrong into the man he would become. The first occurs when he is a test pilot flying the X15 rocket plane. After leaving the Earth’s atmosphere, he accidentally bounces off of it when attempting a return (which I didn’t realize was possible). Instead of freaking out like I would, his quick thinking saves him from floating off into space. Not long after that, he loses his daughter to a brain tumor and is forced to deal with it the way Neil did with everything else–by going to work the next day. Either one of these incidents on their own would cripple most people, but Neil exhibits a knack for compartmentalizing his emotions so that he can concentrate on other important matters, such as becoming an astronaut.
It should be noted that much of the film is spent not in space but in conference rooms, houses, and class rooms. It shows us that becoming an astronaut is not as glamorous as it seems from the outside. It shows us that being an astronaut involves extreme risk. There are a number of twists in the movie emotionally and narratively, few of which will be a big surprise to space geeks. However, while people may already know these stories from memory, it is quite different seeing them acted out on screen. It is a reality that many were against the space race because of the tax dollars they felt were being wasted. It is also a fact that a number of individuals died, and continue to die, in an effort to achieve the unachievable for the common good.
The movie can be separated into four distinct parts: the opening events, Gemini 8, Apollo 1, and Apollo 11. I absolutely agree that all of them were important for telling Neil’s story, but the movie got to be a little long in the tooth by the time the final sequence began. It could have easily trimmed off 20 minutes’ worth of the shaking and been roughly the same movie. In effect, this would have made the remaining lengthy scenes stand out even more. Though the film is long, as a whole it doesn’t feel long, so the aforementioned isn’t much of a detractor, merely an observation.
I want to talk about one more thing that I feel is important to understand. Many have taken to their Twitter machines espousing a boycott of the film because the end doesn’t include raising the American flag. They feel like that means Damien Chazelle and his movie are anti-America. They clearly miss that the point of the movie, and indeed going to the Moon, was not about showing what our country can do but what humanity can do. Showcasing the flag at that pivotal moment would have detracted from that message. Everyone around the world watched in awe as Neil Armstrong did something that no one initially believed was possible.
While First Man purports to tell the story of how Neil Armstrong got to the Moon, it’s actually a tale of all mankind, how we can accomplish anything when we put our minds to it. There are very few events in modern history that can show the will of the combined human spirit so poignantly. It could be argued that this film was necessary to help inspire the masses out of complacency and not taking risks, the mentality that has taken hold of our species since the space race ended. Neil proved that even seemingly impossible tasks can be achieved if we all band together and refuse to give up.
Bonus: Here’s a couple shots I found of Ryan Gosling promoting First Man in head-to-toe Gucci, looking dapper as ever.