The La La Land team of director Damien Chazelle and actor Ryan Gosling reunite to tell the story of America’s quest to have their astronauts be the first to step on the moon in First Man. The film starts out with the focus on the U.S. trying to beat the Russians in space exploration, but slowly pivots into Neil Armstrong’s quest as we see all the personal and professional sacrifices that Armstrong made to be the first to walk on the moon. Here is a brief plot synopsis:
In 1961, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is a NASA test pilot who has a mishap when his X-15 rocket bounces off the atmosphere. Although he gets it to land, his colleagues at NASA are concerned that his mind is not fully on his work. This is because his young daughter is undergoing treatment for a brain tumor that eventually kills her. Once she passes, Armstrong finds out about something called Project Gemini and is accepted into NASA Astronaut Group 2. His family uproots and moves to Houston, Texas and he quickly becomes best friends with Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) and Ed White (Jason Clarke) and their respective families. They get to work immediately both in the classroom and with simulations where they learn quickly that they “have to fail down here, so that we don’t fail up there”. Everyone knows how the story ends, so the question is how entertaining is the journey that is told on screen? Here are my thoughts on what works and what does not in First Man.
Claire Foy plays Janet Armstrong and she is the rock that keeps everyone in the film on point. Whether it is her neighbours going through a family matter, getting the truth from Neil’s bosses, or even keeping the children in line, her performance is Oscar-worthy. She does get to have a few showcase scenes where she yells at an emotionally distant Neil, with her best scene being when she tells Neil that he has to be the one to talk to the children about the fact that he may die in space, as Neil has a tendency to disappear or not be around when difficult conversations related to life and death happen. She has to juxtapose this with being very composed when the press begin to cover the story of Apollo 11 and not letting anyone see a crack in her demeanor. It’s great work by Foy who is quickly becoming one of the most interesting actresses in film and television.
The supporting cast is top notch and includes the aforementioned Jason Clarke and Patrick Fugit as well as Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler, Ciaran Hinds, Shea Whigham and Brian d’Arcy James to name a few. All are outstanding in creating fully developed characters (especially Clarke and Fugit) in limited screen time that I hope they get noticed for their performances.
Ryan Gosling delivers another strong performance as Neil Armstrong. Gosling portrays Armstrong as someone who is excellent at what he does professionally and has a solid family life, but is never one to talk about his emotions publicly or let anyone see his emotions get the best of him. He comes across as being cold at times, which is a difficult task, as audiences usually want to embrace the main character and not be distant from them. His words are blunt and to the point. This is best shown in two scenes with the first being the scene after his wife tells him that he has to tell his children that he may die during Apollo 11. Without any emotion, he just methodically and coolly answers his kids questions about possibly dying while up in space if the mission does not go as planned. Another great scene is when he is walking at night with Ed White (Jason Clarke) and out of the blue he opens up about his daughter that passed away. It is an unexpected moment that even White is surprised at, but it ends quickly. It’s those quiet moments that have stayed with me since I have watched the film and credit goes to Gosling for making Armstrong a character with depth and nuance.
My favourite scenes visually are the lunar landing sequence and when any of the test flights were shown, especially when things didn’t go as planned. There is a lot of handheld camera work in these sequences, but I thought they effectively captured the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in a spaceship without much room to maneuver and how difficult it would have been to try and solve the technical issues that occurred. Although, not a handheld sequence, the film highlighted how helpless the astronauts on Apollo 1 were when the fire broke out inside the capsule. They desperately tried to get out, people at mission control were aware there was a fire, but it all happened so quickly that nothing could be done to save them. You could tell that everyone involved did their homework of doing their best of conveying on screen of how things happened over 50 years ago.
THINGS THAT DIDN’T WORK
I mentioned earlier that Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong has a cool, distant feeling and that it is sometimes hard for an audience to really embrace a film when a main character is like that. The film gets like that at times as well. Characters do die and when it happens, the surviving characters move on so quickly to the next challenge they have to face, that there is never any time for the audience to take in what has happened. There is not a warmth to the film and I think that is what made it so difficult for me to connect with it.
I also wish that they changed the last shot of the movie, as it is a quiet moment which I liked, but it made for an awkward and not satisfying conclusion to the movie. It might have been what the filmmakers were hoping to achieve, but in my opinion, it just didn’t quick work.
First Man was an eye-opening experience for me as I was aware of a lot of the major NASA achievements, but was not aware of all the sacrifices that were made by all that were involved. Whether it was the death of men on test flights, to the impact those deaths left on the families that were left behind, as well as the innovations that were made when it came to travelling to space, I found the film to be informative and I spent the weekend after I watched the film learning more about 1960’s NASA. I said at the beginning of my review that First Man is ultimately about Armstrong’s journey and that is definitely driven home in a touching scene when Armstrong is on the moon involving the memory of his daughter. Although it may not be historically accurate (we may find out if it is or not in 2020 when Armstrong’s manifest of his personal property kit from Apollo 11 is no longer under seal at Purdue University), it did make you think of all the loss that Armstrong endured as well as the fact that it was pure luck that he wasn’t selected for some of the test flights that ended up costing his colleagues their lives. First Man briefly touches upon the question of whether it is actually worth the cost, both personally and financially, to search outer space. I say that any exploration event that can bring people of all nations together (which walking on the moon did) is worth the cost. I just wish the film had more of an emotional connection with the audience because if it did, it could’ve been the best film made about the race to the moon. I give First Man 3 stars out of 4.
The lunar landing sequence was the only sequence in the film shot using IMAX cameras.