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.
My Take – I think it’s safe to say that anyone even with a basic sense of education or awareness knows who Neil Armstrong is (or was). The American astronaut and aeronautical engineer who joined Buzz Aldrin and his fellow officers at NASA, in a 1960s cut-throat competition with the former Soviet Union to see who could reach new imperial heights in outer space. By proclaiming “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” as he became the first man to step on the moon, Armstrong made history as millions sat in front of their TV sets and watched the first ever glimpses of its surface for the first time. But the story of the moon landing has just as much to do with the man that Armstrong was as it does with the nation that let him pursue his remarkable journey.
Based on the book ‘First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong’ by James R. Hansen, here, director Damien Chazelle and writer Josh Singer trade in the arts for the sciences with this film, by emphasizing on the personal story behind the mission, and provide what is perhaps the most fitting cinematic memorial of one of the most incredible men that ever lived. Superbly directed and acted, this is one of those biopics where you know what is about to happen, but can’t help but get caught up in the rising suspense of its great scenes. At their most exciting, these scenes reach a very satisfying climax, rewarding the audience’s patience.
It’s a surprising choice for the Whiplash and La La Land director, moving from pacey musical drama into the realm of a stripped down, raw biopic that serves as a reminder that not all heroes are full of one-liners, love the limelight, or are without heavy imperfection and deep emotional scars. While the film has found itself in an overblown controversy, I can assure you this is an incredible film, which deserves a cinema watch, preferably in IMAX theaters.
The film follows Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), a capable problem solver, who back in 1961 was testing high altitude test flights that would take his X-15 jet over 140,000 feet, beyond Earth’s atmosphere. But back on earth, he and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are struggling to find the right treatment for their young daughter who is suffering from a brain tumor. When he is put on the back burner after she passes, Armstrong is forced into a reckoning that leads him to join NASA’s Gemini program, where he ends up meeting fellow compatriots in the form of Ed White (Jason Clarke), Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), David Scott (Christopher Abbott) among others, all working under Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), a former Mercury pilot who oversaw the astronauts at NASA, all bent on fulfilling President John F. Kennedy’s famous directive to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade.
As NASA works through tests and failures with most tragically causing the deaths of several astronauts, Armstrong remains determined to complete his mission, even though his relationship with Emily constantly deteriorates as she is always left wondering if he’ll come home and become one of those astronaut’s wives who had to face terrible news, that is until the Apollo 11 Moon mission finally takes place in 1969.
It’s unlikely anyone will see this film without being familiar with the story, and is also very deliberately placed, especially early on, but as the plot moves forward, we get better acquainted with Armstrong, director Chazelle makes sure the film works out well. Knowing that Armstrong and his crew make it to the moon doesn’t make their flights less thrilling or failures less frustrating. Singer‘s script does place the film in its Cold War context, but smartly avoids jingoism. What’s most marvelous is how director Chazelle manages to make the epic story feel so intimate. The thing about the film is that despite its subject, it’s much more a personal story than it is another space adventure. The film does place it within the context of the space race against the Soviets, the volatility of Congressional funding and the wider historical implications, but it’s Armstrong’s story that’s most important.
Often, in grand historic moments, the individual’s story is what’s overlooked and Armstrong, being the taciturn type, was notoriously never an over-sharer, not with his family, not with his friends and certainly not with a demanding public. Perhaps that’s why the film feels like such a privilege to watch. This beautiful, profound portrait of the man behind those famous words gives us a sense of the emotional prison Armstrong had trapped himself in, and what he was able to achieve despite it. Through Armstrong’s stance, the film makes a clear point: Determination, struggle, sacrifice and most of all failure are key ingredients to someone’s eventual success. But in order to achieve success you’ve got to risk everything, albeit success is never guaranteed.
Here his relationship with his wife also provides a strong backbone to the mission that changed the way mankind looked at the moon. Inside the Armstrong home, Neil’s dedication sometimes took on a darker hue. To his wife, Janet, sometimes it was hard to see whether Neil was trying to get to the moon or away from home. Escape the responsibilities of being a husband, a father to their two sons, Rick and Mark, or to run away from the crushing grief he felt over the death of his three year old daughter, Karen. At one point, Armstrong’s wife Janet insists he sit down and address the realities of his mission with his children, and he handles the moment like it’s just another press conference.
Meanwhile, Janet embodies the classic image of the frustrated but stalwart wife who supports her husband while dreading the strong possibility that he won’t return home at the end of the day. One of the qualities of the film that I noticed almost instantly was the very unique cinematography, which most of the time uses handheld medium to long telephoto shots creating a very intimate and raw look to the images on screen. The film has a way of putting the audience in the cockpit with Armstrong, bringing to life the terrifying creaking reality of these pioneering flights in a way that is both claustrophobic and visually spectacular, and earns director Chazelle’s film a place alongside other classic space-race films like ‘Apollo 13.’ The shaking, the pounding, the soaring and the crashing into earth. Here, we do get some really ridiculously stellar space sequences, the way these are edited and shot create almost pure dread, in fact the only time I have felt this on edge was when I saw Gravity and Interstellar for the first time, it is that bloody good.
The film marks another triumph for Damien Chazelle, who demonstrates further versatility as a director after crafting the jazz drumming drama of ‘Whiplash’ and the surreal musical whimsy of ‘La La Land.’ This film has no musical numbers, but it is a musical film that captures the beauty and rhythm of its subject. Justin Hurwitz produces a sterling soundtrack to give the film’s one of its main emotional pillars — its tempo, pace and orchestration accelerating with our heartbeat. When awards season comes around, you can bet this one will get attention, and rightfully so.
Performance wise, Gosling and Foy push out really stellar turns here, the relationship between the two seems very plausible and there is a lot of very emotionally charged scenes between them throughout. Here, Ryan Gosling gives what could very well be the performance of his career. His nuanced depiction of Neil Armstrong shows the audience how much the astronaut has to lose if he does not survive such a monumental journey. Claire Foy is also worth noting as Armstrong’s first wife Janet. Her concern and worry for her husband’s safe return from the moon were brilliantly represented during the film’s more emotional scenes.
The supporting cast is packed to the brim with recognizable faces too, with the standouts being Jason Clarke‘s performance as Ed White, followed by Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, an arrogant prick who wasn’t liked by his compatriots. In other roles, Kyle Chandler, Ethan Embry, Shea Whigham, Ciaran Hinds, Pablo Schreiber, Olivia Hamilton, Christopher Abbott, Lukas Haas, Cory Michael Smith and Patrick Fugit manage to leave a mark. On the whole, ‘First Man’ is an extraordinary, powerful and inspirational film that is both masterfully directed and impeccably shot.
Directed – Damien Chazelle
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 141 minutes