First Man (2018)
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke
Synopsis: A look at the life of the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language)
Release Date: October 12, 2018
"That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."
Few words have been more powerful and iconic for all of humanity than Neil Armstrong's first delivery after stepping off the Lunar Module onto the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969. A culmination of over a decade of research involving extreme ingenuity and precision all the while racing against the Soviet Union, the 1969 moon landing, while certainly a victory for all mankind, marked one of the proudest and boldest achievements in the United States' history--one that will be eternally remembered and celebrated.
While the incredible feat ultimately proved successful, the lesser-known steps leading up to it involved many failures, malfunctions, and crashes, with some incidents involving casualties. The painful truth is that the years leading up to the lunar landing were often extremely strenuous, tiresome, and emotionally taxing for those involved, with one such person the first man on the moon himself, Neil Armstrong, the subject of Academy Award Winner Damien Chazelle's (La La Land, Whiplash) latest venture, First Man, a film that dives deep into the years leading up to the historical Apollo 11 mission while focusing on Neil's personal life.
First Man is a film that celebrates the determination and unwavering human drive for success and achievement in the face of all obstacles. These obstacles come in all shapes and sizes in life, but for Neil they stemmed from the death of his two-year-old daughter, who passed away from a brain tumor. Though it threatened to shatter his home life and career, he pressed on, continuing his work with NASA while learning to cope with personal tragedy, which also entailed losing fellow comrades Ed White, Roger Chaffee, and Gus Grissom in the deadly Apollo 1 fire. Armstrong's turmoil is vividly portrayed here through Ryan Gosling, who gives a standout performance as an emotionally torn but resilient soul who won't give up on his dreams, even if it kills him. Director Damien Chazelle showcases this and ushers in emotional complexity by painting an intimate portrait of a man who's so focused on succeeding that it interferes with his closest relationships, which culminates in (what is one of the strongest scenes in the film) his wife refusing to let him leave for the moon without explaining the risks to his young sons.
As sharp, poignant and intimate as the film is in describing Neil's personal life, it's just as sharp and impressive on a technical level, as Chazelle is able to capture the extreme risks of spaceflight with incredibly suspenseful scenes, one of which involves Armstrong and David Scott's (Christopher Abbott) attempted dock with an Agena target vehicle on Gemini 8. As the spacecraft spins out of control, Chazelle keeps the viewer inside the vehicle with the astronauts, without allowing a single exterior shot for breathability. It's a smart decision that fully submerses the viewer in the experience, making them feel just as trapped and in peril as Armstrong and Scott. The lunar landing, though we already know the outcome, is suspenseful as well, with the lunar module having to fly over boulders while inside master alarms are going off and the fuel gauge shows rapidly decreasing fuel.
Another strong technical quality is Chazelle's ability to convey the authenticity of the 1960s through the cinematography, as a gradient is put on the film to really place the viewer in the time period. Chazelle even seamlessly implements voices from mission control from the original Apollo 11 mission, further amplifying the film's genuine nature. The '60s look is only abandoned for the breathtaking lunar surface sequences, which were filmed with IMAX cameras and are thus razor sharp (please see the film in IMAX if at all possible).
First Man is another inspiring, bold, and vividly portrayed effort from Damien Chazelle, who will certainly be getting more recognition come Oscar season. Its intimate look at the broken personal life of Armstrong is balanced by its epic scale, suspenseful flight scenes, and commentary on the human drive to succeed against all obstacles--an all too important lesson relevant to each of us in our respective lives.
Written by Anthony Watkins, October 25, 2018