Movie Review: First Man

Neil Armstrong is shown as a quiet hero in this telling of the moon landing

First Man (První člověk)
Directed by Damien Chazelle
With Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Lukas Haas, Jason Clarke, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Shea Whigham, Pablo Schreiber, Brian D’Arcy James

Neil Armstrong was always an enigma. The astronaut seldom spoke about his experiences and refused to sign autographs. First Man shows some of the more personal side of his life, leading up to the Apollo 11 moon mission, and tries to avoid sensationalizing it.

The title First Man, of course, refers to Neil Armstrong as the first man to walk on the moon.

Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong as rather quiet and technically oriented man, who always keeps his cool under pressure but is reluctant to share his feelings.

But he does have feelings, and we see that in a few strong scenes.

His somewhat cold demeanor creates a bit of tension, especially with his wife, Janet (Claire Foy). But the film doesn’t create too much unnecessary melodrama between them, which is a very big plus.

Janet is depicted as a strong personality, trying to be supportive of her husband while managing their sometimes difficult children. One issue that concerns Janet is safety, as several accidents, including fatal ones, happen during the film.

First Man is set in the 1960s. All astronauts were men at first. The subject of sexism does come up, but just briefly. The Vietnam War also barely gets a mention. A few fleeting scenes show that there was some opposition to the space program, which was quite costly at a time when poverty was high in the US, especially among minority groups.

Politics in general is left out of the film, and elections other current events aren’t mentioned.

Much more time is spent on the space program itself, and that is where the film is at its most gripping. The space race is depicted as just that. The US is trying to catch up to the Soviet Union, but always one step behind.

This leads a lot of the preparations for launches to be rushed, and despite the official glamour of how the missions were depicted in magazines of the era, sometimes things didn’t work exactly like they were supposed to. Disasters were just narrowly avoided several times, and mostly, at least in the film, by Neil Armstrong not losing his cool and working through the options until the issue was solved.

One of the most harrowing parts of the film shows a docking procedure in space that goes awry. It one of several times that the audience will be on the edge of their seats.

The moon mission, even though most people know how it comes out, also has a good deal of suspense as many steps are truly difficult and there are minor malfunctions.

The relations between the various astronauts come into focus, and they are not all depicted as clones. Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), the second man to walk on the moon, comes off a bit negatively, often being rather blunt about things that the others aren’t willing to talk about.

The re-creation of the era is quite good, and all of the high technology of the time now looks incredibly old fashioned. It is amazing to think that people were able to use that level of technology to actually reach the moon.

The film avoids a lot of patriotic grandstanding, and even skips over the famous planting of the US flag on the moon, though it is seen flying later.

Ryan Gosling depicts Armstrong as a quiet hero, someone interested in pushing mankind to the limits of what can be done. But not a hero interested in speeches. Buzz Aldrin has to do the talking at the press conference when Armstrong gives lackluster answers.

Director Damien Chazelle, whose previous films include La La Land and Whiplash, handles the material well and competently, delivering a fresh and evenhanded look at the events.

The film creates a gripping look at one the top accomplishments of the 20th century, but it does keep its focus very narrow. A bit more context of what was happening in the world outside the space program would have helped, but the film is already 138 minutes.

First Man succeeds in trying to humanize the people in the space program, and Armstrong in particular.

It is a drama with action, rather than, for example, Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, which stressed action and suspense over the characters.

First Man is another fall release with its eyes clearly on awards. It is the sort of thing that Academy usually eats up, and the lead performances and technical aspects are likely to get some nods.

Damien Chazelle won an Oscar for directing La La Land, and some voters might think it is too soon to give him a second one.

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