The Apollo 11 mission to the moon is one of the most important moments in modern history, so why is that moment seldom depicted in cinema unless it’s used in a montage or to justify the plot of science fiction films? Well considering how important that moment was and the legacy of the men who landed on the moon I personally believe many directors just don’t want to do them an injustice so instead of focusing on the real story they incorporate it into fiction to justify creative changes or inaccuracies. You also see a lot of focus on Buzz Adrin because the first man who walked on the moon, Neil Armstrong, was considered by many to be a recluse after his mission before he passed away in 2012. Well after years of this fantastic story going untold on the big screen we finally have a serious cinematic adaptation of not only the first walk on the moon but the life of the man who made those astonishing first steps called “First Man”. Does this film do justice to one of America’s most inspirational accomplishments of the last hundred year or does it fall flat in trying to capture the life and mission of an American hero? Let’s take a look in my review of “First Man”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“First Man” follows the life of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) who was the first man to walk on the moon in 1969. Directed by Oscar winner Damien Chazelle, “First Man” focuses on the astronaut’s life from the death of his daughter in 1962 due to pneumonia related to a brain tumor to his eventual famous walk in space. The film focuses on Armstrong’s training for the Apollo 11 mission including the near-disastrous test flight of the Gemini 8 and Armstrong’s infamous escape from a failed lunar module test. As the humble space explorer gets closer to his famous mission his relationship ‘s, especially his marriage to his first wife Janet (Claire Foy), are strained and a nation turns against NASA wondering if the mission is worth the cost, both in money and in lives. Eventually Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) land on the moon bringing to life one of the most iconic moments in modern American history.
Biographical films can be hard to judge because we know the story already. That’s kind of the point. They’re goal is to take the life of their subject or an event in question and project them to the big screen with an attempt to stay loyal to the truth while embellishing a bit for dramatic effect. The interesting thing is that Neil Armstrong was a notoriously private person, especially after his mission to the moon. “First Man” utilizes a book of the same name by James R. Hansen as its source material but still had the challenge of doing justice to a man many consider an American hero. In many ways it does just that, giving us a Neil Armstrong that feels human and flawed. Ryan Gosling puts out a remarkably controlled performance as Armstrong bringing to life all of his known eccentricities including his somewhat-dry and humble nature that stuck with him through his later years. A running plot thread in the film is the impact that the loss of Armstrong’s daughter Karen had on him and while, again, Armstrong was very private about this part of his life this film takes a little creative liberty in using it as a driving motivator for the astronaut’s dedication to his mission. While it’s possible, even likely, that this loss helped the astronaut keep pushing for his goal it’s never been solidly confirmed. Throughout the movie we see Gosling present Armstrong as just a normal guy trying to do something great. The film never feels like it’s trying to build him up as anything more than a normal person, driving home the idea that anyone can accomplish something amazing if given the right motivation, effort and dedication to that job.
What you’ll find interesting is that “First Man” actually spends very little time on the moon, choosing instead to focus on the mission to get there and the personal life of that mission’s most famous astronaut. The entire first hour of the film is focused on Armstrong’s struggles to be something greater than what he is and how his family supports him. One of the best performances aside from Gosling is Claire Foy’s take on Armstrong’s first wife Janet Shearon and she’s absolutely amazing in this role presenting us with a strong-natured woman who supports a man she may not always see eye to eye with but she knows him well enough to understand his plight. She’s also not afraid to put him in his place, getting more and more frustrated as his focus on the mission causes him to forsake those he loves at home. The movie provides a great balance between the dangers of the mission and the pressure that goal puts on Neil’s loved ones as they try to support him. I’m not going to spoil what happens but everything this film build up to leads to a simple final shot that is all the more powerful after having experienced not only Neil’s personal struggles but also how his dedication to the moon landing created a rift between him and those closest to him.
In the end though what we’re all waiting to see is the landing on the moon, one of the most iconic moments in modern American history, and it’s surprisingly downplayed. Originally this bothered me a bit. It bothered others too because the movie doesn’t include the famous planting of the American flag. The moment is quick, lasting maybe 10 or 15 minutes at most in a near 2.5 hour film, but after thinking on it and letting it sink in it dawned on me that this was the point. We all know the moon landing. We know the immortal words that Armstrong spoke taking his first step on the surface. Let’s consider that these astronauts spent only two hours on the moon after four days in space. Considering all the hours and sacrifices that went into making the Apollo 11 mission a success it makes sense that the depiction of the final result would be just as brief in comparison. The focus on this movie isn’t necessarily the landing we all know and have seen many times, it’s the life of the man who led that mission and the struggles of NASA to get that far despite the roadblocks. That doesn’t mean we don’t have the time to appreciate the atmosphere though. The moon landing is shot beautifully with the surface meticulously recreated giving an awesome and truly awe inspiring visual. The approach works because we feel just like Armstrong likely did when he landed and leaving the flag moment out makes the moon landing feel like a more universal accomplishment than simple an American accomplishment. When all was said and done Armstrong did it because it was what he felt needed to be done. Getting to the moon for him wasn’t a means to an end it was the end, the culmination of everything they worked for and that’s exactly how it’s presented in this film.
The visuals aren’t the only highlight though. This is a very quiet movie using sound and music conservatively to capture the mood of a specific scene while many times there’s not sound at all, just two people interacting or taking in the majesty of the moment at hand. Specifically the moon landing scene includes almost no sound other than the astronauts and control on the radio capturing the silence and solitude of the setting perfectly. Even the more tense and dramatic moments do respect to tragedies and lives lost through the use of simple visuals and moments of silence. The infamous moment with the crew of the Apollo 1 perish in a training accident makes the tragedy swift and sudden allowing the audience to experience it in the same shock as the astronauts who died and after the event the camera sits on the view of the door to the shuttle allowing us a moment to take in what just happened and how quick things can go wrong. Because of how perfect this moment was filmed, taking place almost exactly at the one-hour mark, its sets the stakes and the mood for the rest of the film giving every other moment of tragedy or danger that much more weight. Director Damien Chazelle is a master of modern movie direction and through these little details and creative choices he makes “First Man” not only a respectable and tasteful film, but one that allows us to feel like we are really watching something truly inspiring but dangerous unfold.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
My biggest gripe with “First Man” is the pacing. While it’s a fascinating to watch this story unfold the presentation did feel a bit chopping for me, switching abruptly between years and moments in a way that caused me to lose all track of time at it relates to the story. Thankfully we get year cards that remind us where we are at from time to time. We feel the weight of pretty much everything except exactly how long Armstrong worked to get the job done. Chazelle and screenplay writer Josh Singer (who won the Academy Award for writing the Best Picture winning “Spotlight”) try to fit as much as possible in this movie to capture as much of the struggle as possible. Honestly I had the same problem with Singer’s other works, “Spotlight” and “The Post”, in that while all of these movies do a great job capturing history they also have a hard time balancing pace and content. Like its predecessors, “First Man” plays out like a biography more than a biographical drama and feels cinematic but isn’t always the most fun film to view. Thankfully the great direction and acting kept me invested and Singer always seems to benefit from having a great leader behind the camera to bring his visions to life. But, it is easy to lose interest depending on how much you care about the personal struggles of Armstrong and his wife versus the mission to the moon. “First Man” is well written with a great script and some well shot moments of both excitement and tension, but it just lacks the flow needed to make it universally watchable.
I also felt like a lot of the side characters were a bit underdeveloped. While this IS Neil Armstrong’s story we are introduced to several astronauts and personnel that helped make the Apollo mission a success. The problem is half the time we forget who they are. I didn’t even realize Corey Stoll was playing Buzz Aldrin until he and others were looking at the Apollo 11 mission shuttle. Jason Clarke plays Ed White in the film but again I had no idea who he was until he was assigned to command Apollo 1. There are a lot of bland side characters that receive so little focus and development that it’s hard to know who they are and how they fit into Neil’s life. Really the only coworker we really see him bonding with is White and we’re spoon fed that rather than presented with how that relationship develops. Maybe this was by design considering Armstrong was well known for his privacy and thus likely had loose acquaintances more than friendships, but from a viewing perspective, this doesn’t allow the audience to invest in these people and who they are. When the Apollo 1 crew passes away for example we feel the weight of the moment because people died but we don’t feel it for any specific person. It could have been anyone in that shuttle and we would have felt bad. In the end the purpose of this film is to focus on Armstrong and his journey, but a little more understanding of his relationship with his fellow astronauts would have sufficed.
“First Man” is quite the experience, even if it is a slow burn. Damien Chazelle once again proves why he is one of the most effective directors of his time while Ryan Gosling proves once and for all that he is a serious actor capable of encapsulating even one of America’s most famous explorers. He’s not the only one who shines with a great performance as Claire Foy is also a major highlight of the film, but many of the other performances are downplayed due to a lack of development or even screen time. Still these characters are all remarkably human and feel like real people trying to do impossible things. While there are blemishes in this otherwise wonderful film there’s no denying that “First Man” is a well shot, well scripted, and competently directed tribute to an American hero worth checking out. While the moon landing is one of the film’s most amazing scenes seeing the journey to that epic and historic moment is just as inspiring and seeing it presented in a way that does respect to Neil as a human being gives this film a lot of heart and makes “First Man” a cinematic achievement as awe inspiring as the mission that inspired it.