Telling the story of Neil Armstrong and the mission to the moon, First Man is an intense ride and an IMAX screen should be considered required viewing.
Starring as astronaut Neil Armstrong, veteran actor Ryan Gosling captures the very essence of his persona. Armstrong lived with a public profile but he was very much a private person. He saw this as just a job. He got up every morning and went to work for NASA. Director Damien Chazelle is able to capture this essence especially during the July 1969 pre-flight press conference.
“I’m very pleased,” Armstrong says about making history. This isn’t a surprising response given everything we know about Armstrong. While he lost a daughter, Karen, in the early 1960s, Armstrong would later retire to seclusion in Cincinnati. The film’s decade-long focus works in its favor. We see some of the key moments that show how Armstrong must decide things within seconds. Those moments are also perfectly shot and edited together.
The mission to the moon wasn’t easy and NASA lost some of their best along the way. Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee are among the losses. They weren’t the only ones and there would be more to come during the program’s long history. These losses serve as stark reminder of how dangerous this mission was for America. The “idiots in Congress” could have taken money away from NASA but didn’t.
Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (Corey Stoll) takes a back seat to Armstrong in the film. Josh Singer’s script, based on the James R. Hansen book, chooses to focus its story on Armstrong. This isn’t to take away anything from Aldrin’s importance to the mission. It’s just that the story is framed around Armstrong. If there’s one chief complaint about the film, it’s that we don’t get too much into the details of Aldrin. His biggest part in the film doesn’t even come until the launch.
This brings me to another point: the United States flag on the lunar surface. Chazelle is going for how majestic it is for the American people to have achieved such an accomplishment. The space race was seen as a huge battle between the US and Russia. While, Russia had some early victories, it was America becoming the first to land on the moon. While the flag is seen on the surface, there’s more of the moon being reflected onto Armstrong’s spacesuit. It fits the theme and mood of the film.
For all the complaints about the flag, Singer’s script makes sure we get the important lines above all. One of those being: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Similarly, the other one being one of the most famous lines ever spoken: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
With films like Whiplash, La La Land, and now First Man, Chazelle never ceases to disappoint. If you think Whiplash is intense, wait until you see the opening scenes of this film. Chazelle keeps us hooked from start to finish in his most ambitious project yet. What I especially love is how the Florida launch of Apollo 11 is recreated in all its pride and glory. While it’s always fun to see these launches on film, there’s something special in watching this one come together. The way the film cuts between the cockpit and what’s happening outside is absolute perfection.
Ultimately, First Man is an ambitious and majestic film that is truly worthy of Neil Armstrong’s life.
Some additional thoughts upon my second viewing prior to the release:
Justin Hurwitz’s score is one of my favorite scores this year. What he does during the lunar landing makes for one of the best scenes of the year. If you’re not watching this in IMAX, you’re missing out. There are some leifmotifs that recur during the score that almost remind me of his work in La La Land. For me, “The Landing” stands out much in the same way that “The Oil” did in Hans Zimmer’s score for Dunkirk.
DIRECTOR: Damien Chazelle
SCREENWRITER: Josh Singer
CAST: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Ciaran Hinds, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Olivia Hamilton, Pablo Schreiber, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, Ethan Embry, Brian d’Arcy James, Cory Mchael Smith, Kris Swanberg