When it comes to movies about space, you usually end up with a couple of different options. There are the more technical, behind-the-scenes dramas of the specifications surrounding space missions (Hidden Figures), or tales of survival in the harshest environment in existence, combined with majestic imagery of the final frontier (Apollo 13, Gravity). First Man certainly has its moment of spectacle and wonder, but it’s simply that: a moment, a brief one, and saved for the final moments of the film. Until then, it’s the portrayals of the gritty realness of being shot into space inside of a tiny metal box, and the all-too-personal emotional scars that plague Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), that drive this story of the first manned mission to the moon.
First Man shows the life and work of Neil Armstrong in the years leading up to the Apollo 11 mission. Shortly after the death of his young daughter, Neil joins the NASA Astronaut Group, moving his wife and two boys to Houston. With NASA rushing to pass the Soviet Union in the Space Race, the tests and training that Neil and the other astronauts undergo become more and more dangerous, leading to several deaths. The stress of the mission, the grief over the loss of his daughter and friends, and the constant strain on his wife surround Neil as he struggles to achieve the single greatest milestone of human achievement and keep his sanity at the same time.
This is the second collaboration between Ryan Gosling and director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash), and it’s in the powerful performances of Gosling and his costar Foy that sets First Man apart from other historical dramas that portray the historical moon missions. Gosling plays Neil as stoic, distant, and reserved, but also incredibly driven. Neil is described as “distracted” by the higher-ups, and that’s putting it mildly. Neil’s drive and focus on the mission keeps him away from his wife and children, only popping in at home occasionally, and even then choosing to continue studying and calculating rather than play outside with his sons. He’s unable to process the loss of his daughter in a healthy way, flat out never discussing it with Janet (leaving her to deal with her own grief by herself), bottling his emotions up and channeling his energy into his work.
First Man is the story of immense loss, how it takes its toll on us, how we choose to deal with it, and where it can take us. When Neil’s family moves to Houston, Janet calls it a fresh start. But the thoughts and images of his daughter continue to haunt him, and the idea of a fresh start quickly evaporates, giving way to further obsession and neglect. Janet is left with nothing but worry, staying by the squawk box for any update on whether or not her husband is still alive. She’s also saddled with their two sons, who’s lack of a second parent begins to cause them to act out and put even more of a strain on their mother. While Neil’s grief manifests itself as quiet, neglectful solemness, Janet’s comes through as righteous anger and frustration. She lashes out at NASA themselves, calling them out for not actually having anything under control, and Neil, demanding that he be the one to talk to his kids about the fact that he may not ever come home, not her. Neil’s closed off mental state and Janet’s desperate attempts to reconnect with him are both heartbreaking and moving.
The personal drama is so compelling that it almost makes up for the film’s flaws. There are several scenes that portray what it’s like inside spacecraft during takeoff, showing the true claustrophobia and danger of it all. The tin cans that the astronauts get squeezed into violently shake all over the place, rattling the dials and instruments and blurring vision. Chazelle, teamed with cinematographer Linus Sandgren and editor Tom Cross, wisely makes the decision to never show the spacecraft from the outside, completely staying inside the enclosed craft for uncomfortable amounts of time to showcase the madness of these men strapped into a death machine hurtling upwards at hundreds of miles per hour. The scenes are dizzying, loud, and disorienting, most likely causing some viewers to have to look away, but it’s what makes them so effective. Unfortunately, the thrill begins to wear off after awhile. There are just too many scenes of the same thing, and the tension gives way to near boredom due to not having anything to really look at onscreen besides rapid shakiness, or anything to listen to besides garbled radio chatter and loud metallic rattling.
First Man deals with what sacrifices are made in the pursuit of the highest of accomplishments. Neil isn’t interested in the fame, but does understand the importance and historical significance of what it is he’s working towards. But in his laser-focused quest, he leaves his wife, children, and emotional well-being by the wayside. The main question that gets asked is “Is it worth it?” Are all of the deaths, money, time, and resources worth the achievement? Public support of NASA and the Apollo mission wanes in America, with protestors demanding that the money go towards those on Earth that are in need. What good is landing on the moon when there are those who go to bed hungry back on Earth? What good is landing on the moon when dozens of brave men have to lose their lives to get there? What good is being the first man on the moon when it costs you everything else in your life? As Neil Armstrong takes that first step that is both small and giant all at once, both he and us contemplate what the answer might be.
4 / 5 Stars
First Man is now playing in theaters everywhere.