FIRST MAN

What are movies for, exactly? Well, like any other artform, they’re meant to tell stories. Most of those stories are fictional, but many also find themselves inspired by true events. The thing is, truth is often stranger than fiction. Reading the Wikipedia article or listening to an in-depth lecture can offer a lot more information than a 2-hour movie that’s also intended to entertain. For example, if you want to read about the Moon Landing, there has been a plethora of information over every medium for the past 49 years. Making a movie about something everybody knows seems a little pointless, since we all know the story, but sometimes those stories don’t fully explore the most important aspect: the people. 
 
It’s the 1960’s during the Cold War, as tensions between the United States and Russia continue to escalate. We’re now in the era of the Space Race, where the two countries are desperately competing against one another to become the first country in space, on the moon, to infinity, and beyond. Trying to get over the recent death of his infant daughter, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) joins NASA to become an astronaut and hopefully journey to the stars. Little did he know that he would eventually be the First Man on the moon. 
 
Based on James R. Hansen’s biography of Armstrong, First Man says it all in the title. This isn’t so much a movie about the moon landing and the Space Race, but the personal journey of a man overcoming the grief of his dead daughter. I knew absolutely nothing about Armstrong aside from the moon landing, so having his daughter die and be the catalyst for his story was the perfect emotional injection. Armstrong is portrayed as a very quiet man in the film, so what better actor than the King of Stoicism himself, Ryan Gosling? I don’t mean that as a bad thing either. He’s just a very understated actor and he was perfect for the reserved and aloof type of person Armstrong was. It’s all in the eyes, where he conveys a lot of sadness and confusion with his wife, and his determination when he throws himself at his work. It’s a natural performance without any unneccsarry showmanship. Even the “One small step for a man,” quote felt like just regular sentence in his long life. His personality was rather frustrating, however. The emotional core and main story of the film is between Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy), where they attempt to get over their daughter’s death, while also dealing with the potentially deadly job of being an astronaut. There are so many times where Armstrong doesn’t communicate what he’s feeling, or even seem to try to empathize with other people. One pivotal scene has Janet convincing him to say goodbye to his children before going off to the moon, where he can very likely die. I know the guy is nervous about maybe never seeing his family again and totally obsessed with his work, but there are a lot of scenes where he seemed to not care how poorly he treated people. 
 
This was how Armstrong was claimed to be, but it ended up making for a very unsympathetic protagonist. I didn’t really care about his home life to begin with anyway, as it was no different than any other “domestic life” section you’d see in a biopic. Janet is there for the dramatic conflict and that’s about it. There’s not a whole lot to her character past being concerned for her husband’s life and there’s never really any time devoted to her grief. The chemistry, or lack thereof, I suppose, with Gosling did feel very realistic, though. Claire Foy gave off the impression of longing and wanting more from her life, yet supporting her husband every step of the way. She’s quite good in the quieter scenes, her dialogue heavy scenes unfortunately taking me out of the movie every time due to her awful American accent. She is able to make the drama work for the most part, but whenever they were on screen was when I was the least engaged. 
 
As far as showing Armstrong’s journey to the moon, I think I can safely say that (aside from the actual footage), this is the closest any of us will ever come to experiencing a walk on the moon. The Apollo 11 mission it the climax and it’s completely worth all the buildup. We get a first-person view of Armstrong taking his first steps and when the hatch of his pod opens, all sound gets vacuumed out of the theater. It doesn’t just disappear, but sounds like it gets sucked right out of the speakers. Then it’s nothing but labored breathing and staticky voices on the radio as Armstrong, and eventually Aldrin, explore this interstellar, uncharted environment. It gives off this amazing sense of wonder because of the vastness and surreal nature of being there, but also a sense of terror, because it’s an unknown place so far away from home. I felt like I was practically holding my breath during the entire moon sequence, and that’s not the only tense scene when it comes to the astronaut stuff. The story chronicles Armstrong’s career from the beginning and you get to experience a lot of his missions like he did. When he’s in his shuttles and has some technical difficulties, it feels very suspenseful and claustrophobic, a lot of simple old tricks being employeed, such as just putting an actor in a capsule and shaking the camera all around. 
 
With Whiplash and La La Land, director Damien Chazelle has shown to be one of the most exciting up and coming filmmakers to be working today. While he didn’t write this screenplay, unlike those, his stamp is still all over the story. It has an old Hollywood feeling, not just due to the time period, but because of the way action is directed, the lighting, and especially the score. It does make me somewhat fear that Chazelle will keep wanting to indulge in this style, though. He’s talented, but during some scenes, such as a silhouetted Neil and Janet dancing against a moonlit window, it felt like he couldn’t quite shake that  La La Land itch that he seems to still have. Justin Hurwitz’s way too familiar score further drove that home, with some melodies feeling like they were some unused La La Land tracks. However, the overall style was perfect for the film’s tone and besides from some modern technical aspects, it feels like it could have been made in the late 60’s. I sure wish he could have stabilized that camera a bit, though. There’s a lot of handheld camerawork with constant zooms and closeup. It added to that Space Race urgency, but the more urgent, modern style often felt at odds with the rest of the tone. 
 
If you’re going into First Man expecting the nitty gritty details of the Space Race, you’re not going to get that. It’s all merely a backdrop to tell the personal story of Neil Armstrong and how the Space Race personally affected him. While his drama at home with his wife and kids didn’t do much for me, I was captivated whenever he was pushing his body and mind to the limit to achieve the next big thing, trying to conquer his grief and fear in any way he can. It’s not just a hopeful movie from a mankind perspective in the achievement of a moon landing, but a hopeful movie from the perspective of a simple, ordinary man. 
 
7/10

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