Film Review – First Man
Mankind has accomplished some incredible things in the short time we’ve been on Earth. In First Man (2018), director Damien Chazelle and writer Josh Singer (adapting the book by James R. Hansen) recount the events that lead to Neil Armstrong becoming the first man to ever step foot on the moon. Let’s think about how remarkable that feat actually was. According to historians, the Wright Brothers sustained the first controlled, heavier-than-air manned flight in December, 1903. Armstrong stepped on the surface of the moon on July 16th, 1969. That’s only a sixty-three year difference between the discovery of flight to the moon landing. That’s mind-boggling. There were people that saw both events happen in the same lifetime.
If that doesn’t stir some sense of awe and bewilderment in you, I have nothing else to say. Chazelle and Singer understand just how incredible (and fast) our understanding of science and technology was at the time, and especially how dangerous. To reach the moon, a million things had to go perfectly right. Every possibility had to be explored, and every risk had to be measured and analyzed. The success of Apollo 11 came at a great cost in money, time, and in the lives of those brave enough to stand up to the challenge. The narrative takes ample opportunity to detail all of the negativity that came from NASA’s goal. There was the growing blacklash of the public who thought the government was wasting tax dollars, there was the pressure of the Cold War as Russia was gaining ground in the Space Race, and of course there were the tragic accidents. We’re reminded of Gemini 8, a previous mission in which the spacecraft went into a nasty tailspin, putting the astronauts’ lives in danger. There was also the catastrophe of the Apollo 1 explosion, which ended in the deaths of all the crew members onboard.
And yet the goal remained the same, the mission continued forward. Why did we continue to pursue the moon, despite how impossible the odds were? The simple answer is: because we had to. It’s in our nature to push boundaries, to test how far we can go to see what lies in the far beyond. We sense that in Ryan Gosling’s performance as Armstrong. Here, Gosling incorporates his stoic, underplayed acting style to build Armstrong as a character who is quietly obsessed with his work. He treats his job as a means of escape. Early in the story, Armstrong and his wife Janet (played powerfully by Claire Foy) experience a personal heartbreak that hits Neil especially hard. He’s haunted by this event, and it fuels him to keep going in the field, despite Janet’s concerns for his safety.
I have no idea what compels a person to get inside of a tiny metal compartment and get blasted off into the sky with no guarantee of coming home. But oh, Chazelle and his team do an incredible job of giving us a hint of what that rush must feel like. Abandoning the sleek and polished aesthetic that he brought with Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2017), Chazelle opts to go for a grounded, documentary like approach. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is handheld, constantly moving and shaking with its grainy textures. This might feel a little overdone during conversational scenes (does the frame really have to shake that much when two people are talking at the dinner table?), but it’s fantastic during the scenes of space travel. Outside of a few shots, most of the camera angles are taken from within the spacecraft. We see only what Armstrong and his crew sees, with only small glimpses of the outside world through tiny windows. The sound design highlights every bump, creak, and strain of metal, keeping us on constant edge. And when the excitement of the take off fades, Justin Hurwitz score comes in with its beautiful melodies and waltz-like rhythms. This isn’t a musical, but Hurwitz’s score accompanied with the gorgeous shots of space feels like something of an emotional dance.
What exactly does First Man have to offer outside of what we already know of this story? It’s one of the most documented moments in human history. Chazelle adds plenty of historical details throughout the narrative. As Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) communicate with Mission Control in Houston, Chazelle includes actual voice recordings of the staff members, placing an added layer of authenticity. Also, the moon landing itself is featured almost in real time, taking us step by breathtaking step to the moment Armstrong steps onto the surface and utters his now famous line about mankind. It’s safe to say that most people going into the theater will already know what the outcome is. This is perhaps one of the few instances where spoilers don’t (and can’t) apply to one’s enjoyment of the film.
What it does offer is an understanding of how hope, ingenuity, drive, and teamwork can lead to some astonishing results. In a time where division and cynicism has burrowed its way into the public consciousness, Chazelle has delivered an example what can be done when people come together. The story of Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 has become somewhat of a footnote – a section in our history books that we read about for a school assignment. But when it happened, it captured the world’s imagination of all the great things that are possible. This serves as a good reminder of that idea.