First Man Movie Review

First Man Movie Review – By Michael Newman

As a child growing up in the 80’s the space race had already been around for decades. While I had heard the stories of my parents watching Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon, at the time I didn’t realize what it really took for those very first steps to occur. Considering we were living in a time full of space shuttles and satellites, it was easy to forget that only twenty years earlier we were still working on how to get a man into space.

First Man by Universal Pictures and directed by Damien Chazelle (La La Land / Whiplash) takes us on the incredible journey of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) becoming the first man on the moon. The movie covers almost a decade of time, starting with the first scene of Neil Armstrong in a high-altitude test flight in his X-15 to of course the pivotal moment when he first steps foot on the moon. It’s a lot to pack into a film that only runs a bit over 2 hours (138 minutes to be precise) so even though it doesn’t go too deep into any particular event, it shows just enough of the journey to be very captivating.

The cinematography is both beautiful and a bit unsettling at the same time. It’s grainy and shaky, looking as though the film itself was shot in the same era that it portrays. There is a blend of new footage and actual footage that is practically impossible to distinguish from each other. There were many times throughout the film where I questioned whether the footage was actually pulled from original film, or simply filmed to appear that it was. Viewers who are sensitive to shaky camera sequences (where it looks like it is being filmed using an old 8mm handheld movie camera) or for those who prefer a crisper image of grainy footage might be slightly turned off, however I found the mix of both old and new incredibly interesting and it made all of the characters appear as if they were part of an archived documentary, instead of an entirely new film.

The video wasn’t the only mix that is present in the film as there is also a blend of old and new audio footage. They even used the original recording of the moon landing and seamlessly blended Ryan Gosling’s voice in where Neil Armstrong would have originally been heard. The mix of audio footage was done so flawlessly throughout the film that you may even start to believe that that Ryan Gosling and Neil Armstrong are one-in-the-same person.

Since the movie is based on Neil Armstrong himself and not directly on the space race, a lot of other critical events are simply introduced and then gone in a flash. The time jumps in the movie can be a bit confusing as well. For example, there are scenes where his wife Janet (Claire Foy) is pregnant one minute and the very next minute she has a young son running around. Years pass by in minutes in this film, even for crucial events. Another example is when we are introduced to the young astronauts training for the Gemini flights and then a short time later they are ready to complete their missions. Considering these astronauts were an important part of history, it would have been nice to see a little bit more of their development. The best way to describe these hasty time jumps is that they play out a lot like reading a Wikipedia article, the key points are shown and described in detail, but any of the character development (outside of Neil and his wife) is largely missing. That’s not to say that there aren’t other characters in the film that are important, they just aren’t the focus of the film.

If you are looking for a film that is action oriented like Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff, then you may be a bit disappointed in First Man as it is definitely more like a documentary than a Hollywood blockbuster. If you are however interested in the history of Neil Armstrong and his trials and tribulations on his way to the first moon landing, then you will be in for an incredible journey. Even though First Man seems more at home on the History Channel than Netflix, that’s what makes it such an interesting and enjoyable movie. I thoroughly enjoyed First Man and it’s excellent blend of history and personal storytelling makes it a great movie to see with the whole family.

4.5 out of 5 stars


First Man Movie Review – By Lucas Wunsch

Before leaving for the moon, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong autographed a series of envelopes as souvenirs for their families to sell in the event that the Apollo 11 mission didn’t make it back and the widows needed to make ends meet.

Such was the fear, uncertainty and doubt that needed to come through the screen in Damien Chazelle’s latest release “First Man”. Following on the heels of his 2016 Best Picture winning (well, not quite) movie La La Land, expectations were high for Chazelle and he certainly delivers in this biopic of the first man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong.

Played by Ryan Gosling, Armstrong is shown to be not just an American hero, but also a quiet, introverted man whose obsession with getting to the moon nearly consumes him (along with the relationships of those around him).

Driving himself into his work following the death of his 2-year-old daughter Karen, Armstrong rises through the ranks of NASA to ultimately become the commander of the Apollo 11 mission that will be the first to land on the moon. Meanwhile, his interactions with his wife Janet (played by Claire Foy) and children suffer as he struggles to deal with the pressures of the job, the technical failures that occur and the deaths of more than a few of his colleagues in catastrophic accidents. Gosling is supported (and often challenged) by Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin and Kyle Chandler as NASA Chief Deke Slayton. All-in-all, two stories are told here: the challenge to get to the moon and the struggle of what was left on the ground.

Because of Armstrong’s taciturn nature in this script, Gosling had little dialogue with which to display his broad acting range. Instead he was forced, via a series of extreme close up shots, to emote in silence using a clenched jaw or intensely gazing eyes. The most intense stares are actually aimed at the moon in an almost adversarial stand-off between the rock and Gosling. Indeed, most of the film was comprised mainly of two types of shots: extreme close ups on characters during the limited dialogue that did occur, and jarring shaky-cam shots meant to express the uncomfortable danger of a situation such as a mechanical failure or a crash landing. In each type of shot Chazelle leverages the camera to conjure up the distress and discomfort required to place the audience into the scene. At times, these situations can become unbearable to watch. But that’s where Chazelle and Gosling really succeed. Although you already know the outcome of the missions, you are nevertheless taken to a place where you really are wondering, “what if this goes wrong?”

Chazelle goes on to accent these visuals with an impressive audio environment. The huge dynamic range between the roaring of a rocket engine and the silence of space is enough of a shock to keep your attention. And should you be fortunate enough to see this film in a large-scale theater like an IMAX, the experience can become incredibly immersive. On such a large screen and with the right audio system, the POV shots and the grandiose lunar landscapes will grant an unparalleled sense of amazement and wonder.

The success for Chazelle et, al. is in this challenge, “How do you make a movie when everyone already knows the ending?” Apollo 11 landed safely on the moon and returned home without incident. Armstrong’s famous words upon first touching the lunar surface are enshrined in our culture. And yet, there was so much left to be expressed about the men and women involved in this endeavor and Chazelle and company deliver that story. At times that delivery is aggressive or in-your-face and at times it is tranquil and serene. But throughout the entire film we are led to discover entirely different parts to a story we thought we already knew. That is where the victory is achieved for First Man, in taking us to new places.

4 out of 5 stars