A film review by Craig J. Koban October 27, 2018

RANK:  #3


2018, PG-13, 138 mins.


Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong  /  Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong  /  Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin  /  Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton  /  Jason Clarke as Edward Higgins White  /  Shea Whigham as Gus Grissom  /  Christopher Abbott as Dave Scott  /  Brian d'Arcy James as Joseph A. Walker  /  Pablo Schreiber as Jim Lovell  /  Patrick Fugit as Elliott See  /  Cory Michael Smith as Roger Chaffee

Directed by Damien Chazelle  /  Written by Josh Singer, based on the book by James R. Hansen




FIRST MAN - Damien Chazelle's first film since winning the Oscar for Best Director for 2016's LA LA LAND - tells the story of the build-up to the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 20, 1969, during which time Neil Armstrong famously became the first man to ever step foot on it.  

His Herculean feat not only was a momentous moment for all of mankind, but also marked the end of the Cold War inspired space race between the US and Russia.  Rather compellingly, FIRST MAN is not so much a portrait of the early days of NASA and the years of intense planning and arduous setbacks that led into Armstrong journeying to the lunar surface, but rather becomes a deeply personal and intimate study of the trials and tribulations he faced in trying to achieve a first for the human race.  That, and Chazelle's film is one of the grittiest and most harrowingly realistic portrayals of space travel that has ever graced the silver screen.  It's the SAVING PRIVATE RYAN of historical space exploration epics. 

Of course, there have been countless past dramas that have dealt with man blasting off from the Earth and into the heavens (films like THE RIGHT STUFF and APOLLO 13 come immediately to mind), but FIRST MAN is perhaps the first to show space travel and the moon landing as something that was equal parts awe inspiring, frightening, and deeply polarizing to many American citizens, especially those that thought that the unfathomable amounts of money spent on such endeavors would be better spent on the home front.  FIRST MAN wisely understands, though, that Armstrong's mission was unprecedented in history (leaving the confines of our planet just six decades after we achieved the technological ability to fly is staggering in hindsight) and deserves the stature it has attained.  Yet, Chazelle also captures the insurmountable pressures that Armstrong and company faced in achieving President Kennedy's early 1960's desire to send men to the moon by the end of the decade, not because it was easy, but rather because it was hard.  FIRST MAN rightfully shows that Armstrong and his colleagues were not just heroes of limitless courage, but they were also essentially guinea pigs that subjected themselves to an unfathomable number of stomach churning tests to prepare them for the harshness of blasting off and into the cosmos.   



FIRST MAN ostensibly traverses the development of the space program from 1962 through to the moon landing in 1969, and it's all presented through Armstrong's (Ryan Gosling) eyes.  It's established early on that Armstrong perhaps was driven not so much by a patriotic call to arms to beat the Soviets to the moon, but rather was born out of him pulling himself up after personal tragedy.  We see how he and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) lose their young daughter to cancer, which weighs down heavily on their souls.  Yet, it's the recovery process from this terrible event - combined, yes, with a burning dedication and yearning to explore the unexplored - that fuels Armstrong and his fellow astronauts.  Realizing the enormity of what the future moon landing entails. Armstrong has to leave his wife and two remaining children at home daily so that he and his team - including Ed White (Jason Clarke) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) -  can begin preparing their minds, bodies, and souls for the hellishly taxing series of preparation tests required to see whether or not they have the right stuff.  As history has already shown, the years would not be kind to the program, especially when accidents cost the lives of three astronauts and led to increased Congressional and societal scrutiny, but Armstrong and his peers persevere despite these nightmarish setbacks.  And as Armstrong begins to climb the occupational ladder at NASA the stress of what's to come begins to burden both him and his family at home, especially when it becomes clear that his chances of dying in space are 50/50. 

FIRST MAN could not be anymore different that the aforementioned space exploration films, mostly it's just not about the tremendous rigors of NASA in its infancy.  Yes, Chazelle creates this rich and epically staged tapestry that accurately relays the awesome responsibilities of Armstrong and the Apollo astronauts, but he also allows for his lavishly scaled historical film to have an atypical insular tone and feel, and as a result it becomes a finely attuned psychological character study.  Man landing on the moon was undeniably one of the greatest turning points of the last century, but FIRST MAN understands that grand moments like this were propped up on the shoulders of intrepid, courageous, and flawed men like Armstrong, whose personal lives at home took a massive hit in the process.  In many respects, the film becomes a stirring and heartfelt drama about Armstrong overcoming the grief of losing a child and dealing with that trauma by using his mission to space as a form of mental escape.  The pain of his daughter's death is like the spark that lights the fire to Armstrong's ambitious career aspirations and willingness to risk everything to make it to the lunar surface. 

There are multiple moments in FIRST MAN that chiefly highlight what an unendingly dangerous end game these early NASA astronauts signed up to be a part of, like a positively nerve wracking opening sequence that shows Armstrong manning an X-15 as he repeatedly tries break through the Earth's atmosphere, or another haunting sequence that recreates the horrendous fire that broke out in the capsule of Apollo 1 that killed three astronauts and nearly grounded the mission to the moon forever.  The scene is disturbing and sad because of the manner that Chazelle frames it with such shocking abruptness, which further helps establish the inherent unknown dangers that these men faced in just the early stages of the larger Apollo 11 mission to come.  FIRST MAN never becomes a glossy and mechanically derived feel-good movie of the inspirational decade-long build-up to the moon; it almost becomes a sobering commentary piece on the obsessive drives of Armstrong and NASA as they soldiered on despite massive disasters that should have shut them down.   

Chazelle's stylistic choices here are absolutely crucial to his underlining goal of showcasing NASA's drive to win the Space Race.  It's all about making us feel what Armstrong experienced while pushing his mental and physical well being to the limits while lifting off from Earth.  There has never been a film like FIRST MAN that has captured what it must have been like for astronauts to cram themselves into tiny pressurized capsules  with the most powerful rockets ever engineered and built strapped to the back of them.  Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren use tight close-ups, claustrophobic compositions, and a feverously jerky and spinning camera to accurately give a you-are-there first person perspective of the sensation of being a passenger on board one of these vessels that blasted off at then unheard of speeds.  Usually, I'm highly critical of directors employing the so-called "shaky cam", which lesser filmmakers typically employ to artificially drum up tension.  Chazelle's usage here seems both sensible and artistically credible, seeing as it gives you both an exhilarating and scary sense of the pressures of space travel and what must have been going on in Armstrong's headspace during Apollo 11's blast off.  FIRST MAN never glorifies space travel; it makes it something life-threatening where the thought of eminent death must have been lurking in every astronaut's mind.  The fact that Armstrong kept his relative professional cool under such immeasurably strenuous conditions and saw the mission through to successful fruition is simply incredible. 

The emotional epicenter of FIRST MEN lies with its pair of Oscar nomination worthy performances by Gosling and Foy respectively as their beleaguered husband and wife tandem.  Gosling manages to bring a steely eyed focus and stoic resolve as Armstrong that obviously made him so mentally tough willed, but you also gain a sense of his inherent vulnerabilities and crushing anxieties about seeing his mission through while maintaining the healthy fabric of his marriage.  Gosling is also one of the better understated actors at relaying deeply subjugated emotions that weigh down on his characters through subtle body language, a glance, and almost no dialogue.  He gives one of the most quietly empowered and moving performances of his career showing Armstrong more as a flesh and blood man of intelligence, perseverance, and, yes, vulnerabilities versus a mythologized version of this historical figure that's easily propped up for instant hero worship.  And Foy is reliably potent as her equally strong minded, but suffered wife that has to play a character that - in any other lesser film - would have wallowed in grieving wife back home clichés, but she somehow manages to make Janet a real cauldron of simmering intensity that has great persuasive influence over her husband.  Foy's commanding screen presence is noteworthy in a pivotal scene in FIRST MAN when she angrily forces her husband to have a blunt sit-down conversation with his sons to inform them that he just might not make home alive. 

One of the complaints I’m hearing about FIRST MAN is that it’s too grim and uninspired to be uplifting. The movie does use a rough, in-the-trenches aesthetic, but it ultimately highlights the nightmarish perils that Armstrong and NASA battled through in achieving what many considered impossible.  The film isn’t a squeaky clean, paint by numbers, and prosaically rosy portrait of Armstrong as a spirited super hero of NASA.  Chazelle shows him as flawed, driven, and someone that had limitless levels of guts.  The film is engagingly layered and anything but conventional.  That, and there has never been a historical space film before it that has so awesomely and horrifyingly captured what it must have been like for these intrepid men to travel to the moon in their tiny vessels using less computing power than what’s in a modern smart phone.  FIRST MAN is one of the most viscerally potent - not to mention rugged, raw, and least sensationalized - portraits of the early days of space travel ever committed to celluloid and shows Chazelle - after breakout critical smashes like WHIPLASH and LA LA LAND - maturing into one of our most accomplished filmmakers.   

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