First Man Movie Review

Just when you thought we had enough films on the space race, up pops Ryan Gosling playing Neil Armstrong in 2018’s First Man.

Directed by Damien Chazelle, the film not only offered a brilliant cinematic experience but was also sublimely crafted to show Armstrong’s own mission to become the first man on the moon.

First Man Movie Review

It takes a team of experts and engineers to orchestrate a mission into space yet the true story of Neil Armstrong is well worth diving into.

From the personal endeavors of his own engineering career to the stresses of the mission and family life, First Man is an intimate portrayal of one of the most famous men on the planet. 

A Gritty True Story

At the time, few could have predicted that Neil Armstrong would have been the first man to step on the moon.

His journey to that point is depicted in gritty detail and shows the intensity of rising through the ranks of NASA’s space program in the 1960s.

While he got the glory, First Man demonstrates the trials and tribulations that went before it. From the failed missions to the unadulterated dangers of being a test pilot and space travel itself.

The film opens with a stunning sequence that sees Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) hurtle into space as a test pilot.

Having broken through the constraints of Earth’s bonds, this is a masterful beginning to a serious film that holds nothing back in just how dangerous sending men into space was in those early endeavors. 

The Subdued Color Design

Sure, this was the tail end of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ yet the film’s color design is notably subdued which works well with the studied pace of the drama.

There’s the dour metal design of the various crafts and the sheer cold indifference of Earth’s atmosphere and space.

That is until the third act when the Moon’s vast gray emptiness contrasts with the blue, white, and green of Earth in the background.

If you wanted to judge how cinematic Chazelle could be after La La Land and Whiplash then the answer is there for all to see. 

A Lean Drama

For a film that depicts the true story of a quiet engineer becoming the first man on the moon, there is a leanness and a specificity that keeps you entranced.

At times, Gosling portrays Armstrong as emotionally blunted with family and colleagues.

Of course, for the mission that works well as the pressures and mortal threat of the mission come to the fore.

In one sequence, with the pressure of remaining fuel and the success of the entire mission resting on his shoulders, the audience arguably feels the pressure more than Armstrong demonstrates, even though the outcome is well-known.

Chazelle could have lingered on the finale yet keeps it lean as the journey is just as important as the final destination, certainly in this film.

While the Apollo 11 mission was the one to successfully allow a man to step onto the moon, the docking sequence with the 1966 Gemini 8 mission is perhaps even more nerve-wracking.

The camera lingers in the cockpit as claustrophobia persists, all without the use of green screens for a reassuringly tight depiction of high drama. 

An Intimate Profile

During the film, there is this odd sense of whether Armstrong even wanted to be the first man on the moon.

Gosling portrays him almost like an antihero who seems far removed from relationships and even conversations.

For all the grandeur of space, Gosling’s performance is still intimately personal yet shows a man confronting loss on his own terms.

Tragedy cloaks the entire story yet only in the final act does it become apparent how Armstrong dealt with the pain of losing those close to him and Gosling plays it heartbreakingly close to the chest.

If Gosling plays it cold, then credit must be due to Claire Foy and her empathetic, powerful performance which introduces some vim into what could have been a dour watch.

With a marriage under stress, Foy depicts Armstrong’s wife, Janet, as the one to carry the emotion while the boys play in their ‘balsa wood’ toys.

Sure, getting to the moon is something to be proud of yet there’s a family to look after down on Earth too. 

Final Thoughts

If you want a film to portray the majesty and mind-boggling stress of space travel then 2001: A Space Odyssey is well worth seeking out.

Where that film looks outward, First Man looks inward at the inner turmoil that the astronauts were under.

Their family relationships, the loss of loved ones as well as colleagues, and the sheer danger of hurtling into space with only a few layers of metal and a limited amount of fuel to prevent disaster.

Gosling plays Armstrong with restraint and such a powerfully constrained performance is all the better for it.

Max Roberts
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