We’ve always enjoyed movies about the earlier days of the space program. Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff certainly stand out, but even more behind the scenes stuff, like the excellent Hidden Figures, has piqued our interest. Next up in that genre is First Man, which follows the life of Neil Armstrong as he becomes the first man to walk on the Moon. Directed by Damien Chazelle (La La Land), First Man aims to tell a more grounded version of the space race.
We begin with Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) in the early ’60s where he’s grounded following a series of mishaps flying NASA craft. Meanwhile, at home, his two-year-old daughter is terminal with a brain tumor. Following her death, Neil applies to the Gemini Program. Upon being selected, he, his wife Janet (Claire Foy, Unsane) and their son pack up and move to Houston. Soon after arriving, Janet gives birth to a second son.
Although the US continues to lose the space race to the Soviet Union, NASA forges ahead, and Armstrong is eventually tabbed as the commander of Gemini 8 with the purpose of docking with the Agena in orbit. The mission is initially successful, but they start to spin out of control. Before blacking out, however, Armstrong is able to steady the ship and abort the mission. Despite the setback, NASA pushes on with the Apollo Program to put a man on the Moon.
Armstrong’s next selection is for the Apollo 11 mission, which is to feature the first lunar landing. Armstrong and his crew, Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll, The Strain) and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas, The Revenant), take flight in July of 1969 and arrive at the Moon with Armstrong and Aldrin descending in the lunar module, which leads to Armstrong taking the first steps onto the surface and into history.
First Man is an interesting film. Partially it’s the subject matter, though Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong is very subdued, but beyond that it’s how it’s put together. There are long stretches with little to no dialogue as the movie strives to put you in the astronaut’s point of view of being inside the module. The creaking and rattling, the sense of isolation and claustrophobia, all of it is done exceedingly well here, and it helps make First Man feel different than anything else we’ve seen on the subject.
Another conscious choice that proves very effective is not to elevate anyone involved to hero status. It’s really driven home throughout that these were just regular people that put their heart and soul into something that became extraordinary. Armstrong struggles with his home life, including a seemingly strained relationships with his wife and kids. He wasn’t a fiery leader or a smooth talker. He was simply a man with a job to do.
There are some really intense sequences, such as Armstrong’s opening flight sequence in an X-15, and the tragic Apollo 1 accident. The actual landing on the moon is the best of the bunch, though, whether or not the part with them running low on fuel was added for poetic license or not. The accompanying score is excellent from start to finish, and its effectiveness really helps Chazelle get away with so little dialogue during big chunks of the film.
While the dry, procedural manner in which the events of the movie are largely portrayed is unique and interesting, there are times where we wouldn’t have minded a little more energy or conflict to spice things up. Some sections of the film are also overly dark, not in the macabre sense, but in terms of there being scenes where it’s legitimately difficult to figure out what you’re looking at.
THE BONUS FEATURES
There are a number of brief featurettes, showing how some of the sequences were filmed and other behind-the-scenes material, as well as a closer look at Neil Armstrong with comments from his actual sons. A pair of deleted scenes are also on offer, one a fairly lengthy sequence where the Armstrong home burns down, but it’s easy to see why they were cut as they’re self contained and don’t add much to the story.
If you have any interest at all in the formative years of the United States’ space program and race to the Moon, First Man presents a gritty, heretofore unseen look at the events.