Title: First Man
Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clark
Runtime: 2 Hours 21 Minutes
What It Is: 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.
What We Think: There’s something undeniably captivating about space. The way it feels both intimately close and perilously far; in range of our eyes, yet out from our hands. To quest beyond our atmosphere, to journey into the deep black, to discover what lies beyond is not too foreign an idea as explorers from all eras in human history have sought to answer the questions of what’s above, what’s below, and what’s beyond. Inspired by the James R. Hansen book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, director Damien Chazelle (La La Land/Whiplash) sheds all pretense as he partners up with Ryan Gosling (La La Land) to explore Neil Armstrong, the man, not the legend, who took the infamous first step on the moon.
In the time before Neil Armstrong (Gosling) was an aeronautic legend, he was an engineer, a test pilot, and, most predominantly, a family man. Living a quiet life with wife Janet (Claire Foy), son Erik (Gavin Warren/Luke Winters) and daughter Karen (Lucy Stafford), Neil tests NASA equipment that might one day go into the space program. However, after the tragic loss of his young daughter Neil’s professional options shift, he applies for NASA’s astronaut program in hopes of joining the team developing the eventual mission to the moon. No matter the personal successes or professional triumphs, the stench of loss hangs over every choice Neil makes, inadvertently instilling within the already detached man a desire to cast off the shackles of our planet in hopes that a new perspective will provide peace.
Using a directorial approach which offers a documentary-esque feel to the whole of the film, Chazelle manages to immerse the audience in the story from the start. The free-flowing style frequently feels as though the audience is peering in at something private. This becomes especially important as First Man digs into the various tragedies, the personal losses, which surround Neil and serve as motivation to persist. Of the moments within First Man that will evoke the most complex reaction is that of Neil and Buzz (Corey Stoll) reaching the moon. As they open the EVA door, the air rushes out, the camera following as though sucked out. As the camera stops, offering a view of the moon, all sound expires and we see the whole of the moon reflected back within Neil’s helmet. Constructed with returning cinematographer Linus Sandgren (La La Land), this scene is simultaneously full of incredible awe and heartbreaking isolation.
Our Grade: A, Impressively, rather than a rallying cry toward American ingenuity, First Man’s script, adapted by screenwriter Josh Singer (The Post), is far more reserved. First Man abandons the myths to explore the man. With a story less intent on building up a legend, it instead focuses on the humanity of the journey and the unrealized cost of trying to endeavor something never before accomplished. It was a far more emotional and a far more personal piece than I had initially expected.