In the opening sequence of First Man, we see Neil Armstrong test piloting in the Mojave Desert. As evident in this intense sequence that thrusts viewers right into the middle of the cockpit, viewers are in for a thrilling, yet bumpy ride about one of the greatest accomplishments in human history. Director Damien Chazelle immaculately balances First Man by keeping it as grounded on planet Earth as it is exhilarating in the movie’s climatic sequence on the moon. By showing the toll this dangerous mission took on Neil Armstrong and everyone else involved in this project over the years, it makes this biopic about the small step for man even more satisfying (and affecting) by the film’s conclusion.
A look at the life of the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
We know the end story of the Apollo 11 mission. But for the first two-thirds of the movie, First Man shows viewers the eight-year lead-up to the famed mission into the unknown. Instead of focusing entirely on the historic lunar landing, we are shown the small-scale issues surrounding Neil Armstrong and his wife, Janet Shearon, leading up to the launch. By being more down to Earth (literally), we get an intimate look at how the dangers surrounding NASA’s work to reach the moon impacted Armstrong and his wife. We watch as Armstrong’s and his colleagues and friends were willing to stretch the limits or die trying to ensure the completion of the project. We also see how this affects Armstrong when he still is coping with the loss of his daughter years later.
Death, failure, pressure from all corners of the world, First Man juggles a number of heavy-handed issues and emotions throughout its nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime. But despite the dangers, previous failures, and emotions, shown up close from Armstrong’s point of view, he is ready to see this through, even if his wife doesn’t approve. After crashing during a test landing that could have cost him his life, an all-bruised-up Armstrong says, “We need to fail. We need to fail down here, so we don’t fail up there.”
Portraying Neil Armstrong, Ryan Gosling is graceful, yet empowering as the somewhat reserved commander of Apollo 11. As of now, this is a career-best performance for the young star. With every scene, Gosling plays the role with resilience and calm. Equally as good as Gosling is Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife, Janet Shearon. In one scene, Foy takes “No” for an answer from Armstrong, demanding that he talk to his sons before he leaves for the mission in case he never comes back. In a movie about the first landing on the moon, this scene stands out because, for the first time in recent memory, it highlights both sides of feeling the of potential for never seeing a loved one again; Foy takes hold of the moment. There are a number of small, great performances that round out the exceptional cast, including Jason Clarke as Edward White, Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton, Patrick Fugit as Elliott See, Pablo Schreiber as Jim Lovell, Shea Whigham as Gus Grissom, Olivia Hamilton as Pat White, and Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin.
As witnessed in his two previous films, Whiplash and La La Land, director Damien Chazelle has a knack for close-up character moments with great impact. And once again, he does with First Man, both on the ground and in the air. But in those moments in the air, we are thrown into the middle of the cockpit of a spaceship, and we see just as much as the astronauts did from their viewpoint, be it from the tiny windows or from the reflection off the astronauts’ helmets. In those moments, it can feel claustrophobic, but it’s all the more thrilling as we feel like we’re lifting off with those brave men aboard the spacecrafts.
The flight sequences are often intense and at times breathtaking to watch, especially the climatic third act with the Apollo 11 mission; it is one of the best space sequences you’ll ever see. From the launch, to the flight, to the lunar landing, and the roaming of the moon, every moment is masterfully done; unparalleled sound design, luscious cinematography, courtesy of Linus Sandgren, and a phenomenal score from Justin Hurwitz, are just a few aspects that make this reenactment so thrilling to watch here and throughout the entire movie.
First Man soars thanks in part to Damien Chazelle’s personal focus on the heroism and emotions of reaching the moon from Neil Armstrong’s point of view. Its realism and emotional involvement make watching Neil Armstrong and the many people involved in successfully accomplish the most dangerous mission in human history a fascinating journey. History has told us about the historic landing, what it meant for mankind, and what it has paved the way for in today’s society. But First Man puts the audience right in the boots of a man who was a hero long before he took that one giant leap for mankind.