"An Artsy Personal Look at Neil Armstrong"
FIRST MAN is a fascinating, and often riveting look at Neil Armstrong’s experiences leading up to and during the Apollo 11 mission making him the first man to set foot on the moon. FIRST MAN is a deeply personal look at Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) and puts the political motivations of the Space Race more in the background instead of front and center.
The movie begins with Armstrong’s career as a test pilot at a High-Speed Flight Station, where he would fly some planes as high as 207,000 feet. Neil and his wife, Janet, at this point have a son, and a baby daughter who’s fighting cancer. Neil adores his daughter Karen, but cancer sadly takes her away.
Following the death of their daughter, Neil decides to apply for NASA’s Gemini project, racing Soviet Russia to be the first nation to reach the moon. He’s accepted, so Neil, a pregnant Jane and their son relocate to start fresh in Houston. The NASA team keeps finding itself one step behind the Russians, leaving them with a mountain of obstacles to overcome and problems to solve. As various test missions are plotted, planned, executed, or failed, Neil and Janet grow close to some of the other NASA astronauts and their families, especially Ed White (played by Jason Clarke) and his wife.
As the pressure to beat the Russians escalates, not everyone in the general public or in the capital believe the space program is worth the high price tag. The stakes increase even more as multiple astronauts and pilots fatally die due to technical glitches, including Neil’s friend Ed White. Neil’s determination to succeed turns into an obsession, often putting his own wellbeing on the line. Still grief stricken over the death of his daughter, Neil refuses to be vulnerable with anyone, and it takes a toll on his marriage to Janet.
When the Apollo 11 mission arrives, Neil, along with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, are chosen as the astronauts. The incredibly dangerous mission could easily end with their deaths, but, as history already knows, this is not the case.
An important rule in film criticism is to not judge a movie based on how you want it to be, but to judge it based on what it’s trying to achieve. This is especially crucial for establishing expectations when viewing FIRST MAN, since it’s not a flashy, dramatized, “feel good” space movie like APOLLO 13 or fictional movies like SPACE COWBOYS, THE MARTIAN and GRAVITY. Instead, FIRST MAN is primarily a drama that tries to understand the famously quiet and reserved astronaut Neil Armstrong, and what made him tick.
For those concerned that the movie omits the fact that Armstrong’s first step on the moon is a historic and important American achievement, rest assured this isn’t the case. There are many flags featured throughout the movie, and the fact that America is rushing to beat the Russians isn’t missing from the movie. That said, the movie’s emotional focus isn’t Armstrong’s patriotism, but his innate passion for exploring the unknown, as well as his struggle to accept his daughter’s death. This internal battle culminates to Neil’s moments on the moon, and when the moment is portrayed in FIRST MAN, from a storytelling perspective, like it or not, it makes sense why the filmmakers omitted certain moments from the movie.
Is FIRST MAN the whole story? Absolutely not! There are numerous other men and women that were responsible for Apollo 11’s success. The movie doesn’t even tell Armstrong’s full story, nor is it trying to do that. What it does do is paint a fascinating portrait of a flawed, yet deeply inspiring man who made great achievements for the United States and for the human race as a whole. As for featuring the American flag on the moon, there are two prominent shots of the flag planted on the moon.
FIRST MAN’s personal approach is noticeable, even in its handheld cinematography that spends lots of time extremely close to Neil and Janet’s face. Shot primarily on Super 16mm film, the movie has a distinct 1960s feel, almost as if the movie was shot like a home movie. When the transition is made from widescreen film to full-screen IMAX on the moon, the scene is breathtaking. Ryan Gosling as Neil and Claire Foy as Janet fully commit to their performances, but at times there’s a stiffness in their delivery that feels cold. This could be explained as an intentional foreshadowing of Neil and Janet’s eventual divorce after the Apollo 11 mission, or it could simply be poor direction from the movie’s young director, Damien Chazelle.
Chazelle continues to show impressive tonal agility with his fourth feature movie, crafting a story that’s vastly different from his previous successes LA LA LAND and WHIPLASH. The movie isn’t without its mistakes though. Since the movie wants to focus more on Neil’s character journey, it’s extremely difficult to relate with and understand the man because he’s so reserved. How does the audience connect emotionally with a man who isn’t very emotional? While this could be historically accurate, it does make the 140 minute run time feel 20 minutes too long.
When it came to historical accuracy, Neil Armstrong’s sons worked heavily with the filmmakers, offering many notes of things that needed to be changed. Rick Armstrong even told the LA Times, “Early on, there was a lot of profanity in the script [and] we said, ‘We know that’s common now, but back then, it wasn’t. If you’re trying to be authentic, and you’re throwing in all these modern terms, you’re missing the boat.’” Rick grew to trust Gosling and Chazelle’s portrayal of his father, and has strongly supported the movie since seeing it.
Even so, FIRST MAN still has some strong language, including one “f” word and several profane uses of Jesus Christ’s name. Faith as a whole isn’t portrayed prominently, partly due to the fact that Armstrong wasn’t as explicit about his personal beliefs or faith as Buzz Aldrin, who actually held a private communion ceremony on the moon (something not portrayed in FIRST MAN). There are mentions of prayer and God here and there, and a cross is seen on little Karen’s casket, but overall, faith feels foreign to the Armstrong family in FIRST MAN.
While FIRST MAN is void of other objectionable content, there are multiple perilous sequences, and the movie’s five profanities warrant strong caution.
FIRST MAN is a fascinating, often riveting look at Neil Armstrong’s experiences leading up to and during the Apollo 11 mission, which made him the first man to set foot on the moon. After Neil and his wife Janet lose their 2-year-old daughter to cancer, Neil joins NASA’s space race program. He becomes obsessed with fulfilling the mission of reaching the moon, even though the risks are enormous, and it takes a toll on his family. At what cost will their mission succeed?
FIRST MAN focuses less on America’s motivation to beat the Russians to the moon. It spends more time exploring Neil Armstrong’s personal struggle with grief, acceptance and his drive to explore the unknown universe. Stunningly filmed and terrifically acted, the movie is great for what it’s trying to achieve, but struggles connecting emotionally. This makes the movie feel about 20 minutes too long. Sadly, the movie has several strong profanities, some obscenities and very intense scenes that warrant strong caution. FIRST MAN has great moments moviegoers will love, but some history buffs may be disappointed at what’s left out.