Review of 'First Man'

A very human retelling of the story of Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon.

First Man begins with a young test pilot, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), grounded after being deemed reckless having nearly killed himself while flying a X-15 rocket plane. He throws himself into finding a way to save his young daughter from a brain tumour but is ultimately unsuccessful. Neil takes the death of his daughter very hard but finds solace in burying himself in work applying and ultimately becoming a Gemini astronaut. As he progresses through the program accelerated by the government as it sees it is losing the space race to the Soviet Union Neil becomes friends with many of the other astronauts and suffers grief when he attends their tragically frequent funerals. Despite the concern of his wife Janet (Claire Foy) he continues with his work and is ultimately selected for the Apollo 11 mission which would take men to the moon for the first time.

An interesting study of a man who was notoriously private (ironic considering the spotlight he was thrown into) that attempts by following Armstrong in the years leading up to his walk on the moon to explain how he ticked. This film very much concentrates on the man in as realistic a way as possible, unflinching in it's portrayal of the tragedies that plagued his life. He is the entire focus here with little in the way of spectacular effects (though highly realistic when we see them) or an epic film score - Just the story of a man who was thrust, unknowingly, into a role that would define himself for all time.

I have to say I did find myself feeling a bit woozy watching this one with it's “herky-jerky” hand-operated camera movements and the often dizzying portrayal of an astronaut's experiences (one scene where we are pretty much experiencing first hand a contraption used in training to test whether the astronaut can right himself when thrown into a chaotic spin makes me sweat again just to think about it…). This is, however, I think a good indicator as to how well the director has brought we, the audience, into the story of this surprisingly humble man. During the film the quiet moments stayed that way despite watching it in a packed cinema with everyone glued to the screen for every minute (save the cries of a rather noisy baby brought in, for some inexplicable reason, by a couple sitting in our row). This is riveting stuff.

I think Gosling is, without a doubt, a force to be reckoned with putting on a captivating performance as Armstrong as enigmatic a performance as the man himself was in reality. As Armstrong Gosling's blank face often portrayed little of what he may have been thinking inside preferring to keep it bottled up, drowning himself in work, despite the often expressed concern of those around him. Amazing stuff. Foy plays the role of concerned wife extraordinarily well, who leaves Armstrong to his grief yet supports him all the way even if this support is not often returned. One cannot help but think it must have been a lonely life for her waiting to see if her husband would ever open up and let her in.

The film looks absolutely amazing and is utterly convincing with, obviously, obsession to the details from the time (clothing, cars, etc, etc) but also the details of the events it portrays which are often visceral, shaking the viewer to their core. Life aboard these early spacecraft is also not sugar-coated as we see just how cramped and terrifying the spaces were to the crew despite being highly trained. This is made all the more horrifying with the tragic depiction of Apollo 1's “plugs out” test where the entire crew are killed while helplessly sealed within the capsule with all that is shown to us is the sudden bulging of the fabric of the spacecraft.

Based on the book “First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong” by James Hansen, an authorised biography (written with the cooperation of the man himself), it is likely “First Man” is as close as we will ever come to understanding the enigma that was Neil Armstrong.

Those expecting an action film will doubtless be disappointed but those expecting an insight into one of the most enigmatic people of all time might…probably still be disappointed but “First Man” does certainly go some way into explaining why he was the way he was. This film is a study of grief and the way one obsessive and driven man dealt with it.

Rating: “Nearly perfect, but not quite”

Review Date: 2018-11-04

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

Studio: Universal Pictures

Year: 2018

Length: 141 minutes

Genre: Melodrama

Other reviewed films by Damien Chazelle: