While there have been many movies about space and space travel, there have only been two significant films dealing with real space pioneers: The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. Given his prominence as the first man to walk on the moon, it’s somewhat surprising that Neil Armstrong makes only a tangential appearance in one of those films. However, he’s finally getting his due in First Man.
Directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) and written by Josh Singer (The Post, Spotlight), the film stars Ryan Gosling as Armstrong and Claire Foy as his wife, Janet. It focuses on Armstrong’s life in the 1960s, from his time as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California to his ascent within the ranks at NASA and eventual perch as commander of Apollo 11, the first manned spacecraft to land on the moon.
While the film does contain multiple spectacular flight and space sequences, the vast majority is dedicated to examining Armstrong's life and his family. Perhaps less known now — nearly 50 years after the moon landing — Armstrong was famously reserved, rarely outwardly expressing emotion. While that demeanor served him well as a pilot, it also kept him at a distance from his family and friends.
Perhaps to complement Armstrong’s personality, Chazelle and Singer have made a movie that is remarkably unsentimental, especially compared with those two other famous NASA movies. Instead of building up a myth about how the space program was universally beloved and supported, the filmmakers take pains to show the discord it caused, both on a personal level for the families and in the country as a whole. Fort Worth’s own Leon Bridges makes a cameo as poet/musician Gil Scott-Heron, reciting a poem denouncing the government’s misplaced priorities.
Still, it’s hard not to get caught up in the amazing feats NASA and its astronauts were able to accomplish. Thanks to the many fictional space movies in existence, the inherent danger of space travel has been somewhat dulled. First Man makes that danger undeniable, as Chazelle utilizes a “you-are-there” filmmaking style. The audience is made to feel the claustrophobic confines of the spaceship; the unrelenting shaking as the rocket blasts off; and the relatively flimsy nature of the multimillion-dollar venture, where one tiny mistake could lead to disaster.
The flight and space sequences, especially when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) land on the moon, are breathtaking. You cannot make a movie like this without providing a sense of authenticity, and First Man has it in spades. The level of detail the visual effects team and the production crew in general put into making sure everything on screen is as accurate as possible is, quite simply, astonishing.
Gosling is as good as he’s ever been as Armstrong, showing multiple shades of emotion behind a mostly stoic veneer. Foy, best known for starring on The Crown, is equally good, making Janet into much more than just the woman behind the man. The film is stacked with other great supporting actors, including Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Ciaran Hinds, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Pablo Schreiber, and more.
First Man is a great tribute to a true American hero and makes for an unforgettable moviegoing experience. Don’t wait to see this one at home; this film deserves to be seen on as big a screen as possible.