FIRST MAN (2018) tells the story of astronaut Neil Armstrong, following his personal journey as he becomes the first human to step on the moon. It’s a journey that is as focused as it is somber, and the film does an outstanding job capturing this mood.
The film also presents a raw and honest look at NASA. Don’t expect the crowd-pleasing heroics of Ed Harris and company in Ron Howard’s APOLLO 13 (1995). NASA here is more often portrayed as a group of scientists so caught up in the speed of the space race that they often pushed ahead without fully knowing what they were doing, at a great cost, as human lives were lost.
Regardless, Neil Armstrong is shown here, in spite of his own personal demons, believing the space mission was indeed worth the cost. FIRST MAN is not a knock on NASA. It’s simply an honest look at the space program in the 1960s.
When FIRST MAN opens, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are dealing with the failing health of their very young daughter, who has developed a tumor. She dies shortly thereafter, and it’s a loss that stays with Armstrong throughout the course of this story. His somber mood sets the tone for the entire film. He cannot get over the loss of his daughter, and he struggles to deal with it. He sees her in his mind’s eye constantly. Yet, we learn as the story moves forward, that Armstrong keeps his daughter’s memory close to his heart and uses it as a focal point to drive him forward on his quest to reach the moon. It makes for some very effective storytelling.
Which is pretty much the plot of the entire movie, the quest for NASA to reach the moon before the Soviet Union does, as experienced by both Neil Armstrong and his wife Janet, who throughout the whole process is the rock which keeps her family together.
As such, FIRST MAN works on a much more personal level than a broad history lesson on the moon mission.
FIRST MAN was directed by Damien Chazelle, his first film since he won the Best Director Oscar for LA LA LAND (2016), a film I liked a lot, so much so that it was my favorite movie from 2016.
With FIRST MAN., Chazelle is as focused on Neil Armstrong as Armstrong is on the mission. At times, this focus proves to be almost claustrophobic, as sometimes I wished Chazelle would just pull back a bit and look at the space mission through a broader lens, but that clearly wasn’t his purpose here.
This is Armstrong’s story from beginning to end, one he shares with his wife Janet, who is every bit as important to the story as her husband. Indeed, the strongest scene in the movie doesn’t take place in space at all but inside the Armstrong home. It’s the night before Neil is leaving for the moon mission, and Janet confronts him about wanting to leave without saying goodbye to his sons. The scene at the table where he has to admit to his young sons that he may not be coming back is by far the most powerful scene in the movie.
The film also does well with its moon mission scenes. The most cinematic scene in the film is the lunar module’s approach to the moon’s surface. It’s a magnificent scene and an example of movie-making at its finest. It truly captures the moment of what it must have been like for human beings to actually see the moon up close and then actually set foot upon it.
It’s no surprise that the somber screenplay of FIRST MAN, based on the book by James R. Hansen, was written by Josh Singer, the man who wrote SPOTLIGHT (2015). That screenplay won Singer an Oscar.
Singer’s screenplay here for FIRST MAN reminded me a lot of his screenplay for SPOTLIGHT. Whereas it was the subject matter in SPOTLIGHT that was bleak, here in FIRST MAN it’s Neil Armstrong’s broken heart. He is devastated over the loss of his daughter, and he refuses to forget her. He uses her memory to drive himself forward towards the moon. It is not a happy journey. Of course, we know from history that the end of this journey is a happy one, as Armstrong made it to the moon and did indeed become the first man to step onto the moon’s surface. And in this movie, the moment also allows him to find closure with his daughter.
The screenplay also does an excellent job showing NASA as a human organization rather than one occupied by superhuman scientists and engineers. There are nonstop flaws and setbacks, and astronauts lose their lives in the process. In another of the film’s best scenes, NASA scientist Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) tries to assure Janet that Neil is going to be fine, that they have things under control. She quickly lashes out at him, saying, You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control! It’s a painfully poignant moment.
And yet as I said, this is not a movie that bashes the space program. The tone is prevalent throughout that the entire mission to the moon was worth the cost. FIRST MAN is simply an honest look at these costs.
Ryan Gosling is one of my favorite actors working today, and as expected, he does a fine job here as Neil Armstrong. He nails Armstrong’s focus throughout, and plays him like a grieving introvert who oftentimes shuns away both his family and friends. He needs to deal with his grief alone. Yet, Gosling is careful never to paint Armstrong as a jerk. For instance, he does not come off like a jackass when he ignores his family but rather like one who is truly struggling with a personal lost, and when he is pressed by his wife to step up for his family, he doesn’t lash out at her. He quietly acquiesces.
Some may think this is a one note performance by Gosling, as he seems to be stuck in this sad mood throughout, and while this may be true, he does effectively capture Armstrong’s pain and resolve.
That being said, Claire Foye I think gives the best performance in the film as Janet Armstrong. She certainly displays the most range, from loving caring wife, to frustrated mother, to the incredibly strong woman who has to go above and beyond to not only keep her husband focused but NASA honest about what they are doing with her husband. Foye is more than up to the task. Better yet, she shares almost the same amount of screen time as Gosling. She’s no supporting love interest. Janet is a prominent character here.
I haven’t seen much of Foye. She’s done a lot of TV work, and she was the best part of the weak thriller UNSANE (2018) earlier this year. She played the lead in Steven Soderbergh’s silly thriller, notable because it was shot entirely on an iPhone.
The supporting cast is excellent. Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Lukas Haas, and Ciaran Hinds all make solid contributions, as do a bunch of others. It’s well-acted throughout.
There’s also a powerful music score by Justin Hurwitz, which is no surprise, since he also composed the music for LA LA LAND and WHIPLASH (2014).
I didn’t absolutely love FIRST MAN. First of all, by design, it’s not a happy movie. In fact, it’s so downright mournful that I almost had a headache by the time it was over.
There are also times when the pace slows a bit. I wouldn’t call the film uneven because these moments are few and far between, but they are they nonetheless.
The film does end on a strong note, with the successful moon landing. In fact, the phrase “The Eagle has landed” has never sounded better, not since Armstrong said it for real.
History remembers that Neil Armstrong was the first man to step on the moon, and it’s easy to accept that moment as it was captured in the grainy TV footage from 1969.
FIRST MAN fleshes out Armstrong’s story, presents it not as a black and white image but in high-definition clarity, and by doing so reveals that the human side to Armstrong’s story is every bit as important and relevant as the scientific side.
In short, Neil Armstrong was a real person with real fears, problems, and pains, and in spite of these things which we humans all face, he didn’t let them get the best of him but instead in his own quiet way used them to propel him to the moon.