Movie Review: First Man

  • Director:  Damien Chazelle
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler
  • Screenplay: Josh Singer 
  • Based on the Book by: James R. Hansen
  • Music By: Justin Hurwitz
  • Cinematography: Linus Sandgren
  • Premiered: October 12, 2018 (USA)
  • First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, 2005, Simon & Schuster

Synopsis: A look at the life of the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969. (From IMDb)

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Review: Have you ever looked up into the sky and wondered about what lies above? Somewhere, beyond the stars, a whole universe of wondrous discoveries lay waiting for someone to stumble upon. Back in the 1960’s, America needed a morale win. The then United Socialist States of Russia, modern Russia, launched Sputnik-1 in 1957. This sparked major concerns in America over the Soviet Union not only conquering space first but also the possibility of weaponized satellites. In a world growing increasingly smaller, only space remained as the last great frontier for countries to conquer.

On May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy announced his intention for America to send a man to the moon before the end of the decade. A number of political factors affected the timing of this decision. Kennedy felt incredibly pressured to have the United States overtake the Soviet Union in the “space race.” Four years after the Sputnik launch in 1957, the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space on April 12, 1961. This greatly embarrassed the U.S. when Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5. However, Shepard only completed a short suborbital flight instead of orbiting the Earth like Gagarin. The Bay of Pigs fiasco in mid-April tarnished Kennedy’s reputation and he wanted a task that the U.S. could achieve before the Soviet Union. After consulting with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, NASA Administrator James Webb, and other officials, Kennedy concluded that landing an American on the Moon would be an incredibly challenging technological feat. Putting a man on the moon was one part of space exploration where the U.S. could overcome the Soviets. Many historians view the massive growth of NASA in the 1960’s as an extension of the cold war.

First Man takes place between 1961 and 1969, the height of the space race.  In 1961 Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) worked as a test pilot in California. While Neil is flying planes in the Mojave desert, he and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), lose their second child, Karen, to brain cancer. Shortly afterwards, Neil is hired to join NASA’s space program in Houston, Texas. There, he and Janet befriend the other astronauts chosen for the moon mission: Ed White (Jason Clarke), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit), Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber), and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stall). The families bond as the men embark on often dangerous missions leading up to Armstrong becoming the first man to walk on the moon in 1969.

Damien Chazelle chooses to focus on the life of Armstrong and how the NASA program shaped his life. Armstrong suffers greatly from the death of Karen. Her cancer was the one thing he could not solve, despite trying desperately hard to solve the equation. Gosling does an excellent job of portraying a deeply feeling man who compartmentalizes his emotions to an extreme. Unsurprisingly, Karen’s death deeply impacts Neil’s relationship with Janet. The NASA program presents a fresh start for the family and a way to move past the tragedy of Karen’s death.

Since no one had ever attempted to land a living, breathing human on the moon before, NASA needed to perfect several scientific innovations in order to make sure the launch vehicles were safe. As a result, Armstrong single-mindedly  dedicates himself to his job. With outside pressure from the government and protesters, NASA attempts to be first to the moon – through any means possible. This massive undertaking involved writing new science just to figure out how to safely launch a vessel out of the atmosphere and back again without killing anyone.

 The main narrative arc follows Armstrong’ struggles to balance his professional and personal responsibilities. While he uses work to distract himself from the pain of Karen’s death, he increasingly grows distant from his family. Singer, the screenwriter, strikes a delicate harmony between the two aspects of Armstrong’s life: the raw, emotional examination of the Armstrong’s’ home life and the high-stakes world of NASA where death and danger hang in the air. Both aspects are given equal time to shine and paints a fascinating portrait of the man at its center.

Gosling provides another strong and understated performance. His version of Neil is a focused and introverted man haunted by the past and driven by the future. At times, Neil comes across as distant and cold, but moments of touching humanity woven throughout make Neil feel like a complete person. Claire Foy has the more relatable role and serves as the rock of the Armstrong family. However, her dreams of a “normal” life quickly dissipate as Neil becomes more involved at NASA. In lesser hands, Janet would have come across as a cliché, but the script gives Janet a lot of autonomy and she asserts herself to great effect several times. Foy portrays Janet masterfully and is responsible for delivering some of film’s most heart-wrenching scenes when confronting the harsh realities of Neil’s job.

While Foy is an excellent actress, her attempts at an American Midwestern accent came across as extremely affected several times. Her British accent appeared a couple of times throughout the film, especially during the emotional sequences. However, this in no way dampened Foy’s performance. But the occasional slip-ups did make Janet feel a little less “real”.

The film opens with a dizzying test flight on the rocket-powered X-15 — a scene that Chazelle juxtapositions with the heartbreaking sequence of Karen deteriorating. After her death, Neil does not allow anyone to see him break down. This stoicism continues throughout his life as he survives the death of fellow pilots and astronauts. Armstrong does not comes across as some kind of space cowboy or an ambitious jerk. Instead, he is humble and hardworking. Given his emotional distance, Armstrong is not an infinitely likable. However, his strength of character and remarkable achievements far outweigh the negative aspects of is personality.  

I would recommend seeing First Man in theaters. The amazing cinematography, especially the space and rocket sequences, really shine on the big screen. Like Interstellar, the space and planet/moon sequences fill up the screen and transport the viewer literally out of this world. While this is a story about the NASA space program, Chazelle keeps the film tightly focused on the two Armstrongs and does not attempt to capture every major event or figure involved.

Unlike other movies made about this time period, which superficially include the astronauts’ wives as an attempt at character development, Chazelle gives Janet plenty of screen time. Just like in war, the wives must keep the home front running, maintain the house, tamper down nerves, and hope that the men do not die in an explosion. Even though we all know Armstrong makes it to the moon and back, the tension keeps you on the edge of your seat.

After numerous failed missions and several horrific deaths, NASA making it to the moon feels like a lost cause. Then, just when it seems impossible, the rocket launches with Aldrin and Armstrong safely cocooned inside. They make it to the surface and take one giant leap for mankind.

If you want a snapshot of how Sputnik-1 and the NASA program affected and influenced the younger generation, I recommend Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam Jr and its movie adaptation October Sky

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