FIRST MAN REVIEW
Starring: Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy
Directed By: Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash)
Runtime: 2 hours 21 minutes
First Man is based on the biography of the same name written by James Hansen. The movie starts in 1961 with Neil taking notes and trying to solve the case of his daughter’s illness that she ultimately succumbs to. Taking notes with numbers and a large amount of data. Don’t worry that’s not a spoiler, because aside from the clip you just heard, it doesn’t come up at all. You see, Neil is a nearly emotionless man. He emotes in private and shows an even keeled demeanor at all times when in public. He never seems to happy or too sad even when he should be feeling something.
That makes for a tricky movie. You see, movies like this tend to play on your emotions. There’s failure after failure, someone makes a rousing speech, people cry, everyone cheers, and the hero finally succeeds. That’s not this movie. First Man is as cold and as calculated as its source material. Our movie is about the nuts and bolts of landing on the moon. How did we start by craning our necks upward and dreaming to setting foot on the moon in July of 1969? Your feelings will just get in the way of that goal. So First Man removes them from the equation. Some people will love that move. Others will hate it. You could say this movie is boring and I wouldn’t fight you on it. But if you love science, engineering, space exploration this may be your favorite movie ever.
The film is full of bold choices. Many of First Man’s key moments are not seen as normal movies would choose to show them to you. Instead, we see major events in the reflection of Neil Armstrong’s visor. We see what he sees. The picture playing out as images dance across Ryan Gosling’s face. I’ll admit it is very different, but I think I liked it. Not everyone will.
From what I saw, Neil Armstrong was a man haunted by the grim specter of death. Death followed him. It never deterred him. He pressed on. That’s a very American ideal. You just keep on working. Despite everything happening around you, there’s a job to do. And Neil was willing to sacrifice everything to get America to the moon first.
It does address the Space Race with the Russians, there’s a scene where the American scientists at NASA are enraged that they’ve been beaten in those early steps. It handles the conversation going on in American households asking if the quest to land on the moon was worth it from a financial standpoint. Having not lived in that time period, I can safely say, I don’t understand why people think space exploration is a waste of money. All the tech it spurns. All the things we learn. Totally worth it. It’s not even a question to me. This movie makes very clear that the men in the Gemini and Apollo programs knew the risks and felt it was worth it.
As for the big controversy surrounding First Man. The Flag. In a world where you have to denounce things you didn’t think you had to denounce, there’s a flip side to that coin, you have to say you agree with things you didn’t necessarily think you had to say you agreed with. The accusations that this movie is anti-patriotic were very clearly made by people who hadn’t seen the movie. Cause there’s definitely a lot of American flags in this movie. EVEN ONE ON THE MOON! That’s another one of those images you see through the reflection on Armstrong’s visor. So it isn’t the standard plant the flag in the soil scene from the 3rd person perspective. But it’s 2018, you’re going to believe whatever you want to believe and I won’t be able to change your mind. God forbid we did our own research, instead of take everything from the internet.
Back to the movie’s actual merits. Director Damien Chazelle has made us expect big things at this point in his career. 2014’s Whiplash is a movie we’re going look back on as being robbed of Best Picture. 2016’s La La Land will forever be remembered as the movie that almost won Best Picture. So, you’re natural instinct is to say this will be nominated for Best Picture. I think this movie gets a lot of nominations, but might come away empty handed on Oscar night. Could take home a few Golden Globes because it won’t have A Star Is Born to contend with on the drama side. Chazelle’s films are all about sacrifice. What are you willing to sacrifice to achieve greatness? First Man is the story of a man who was willing to sacrifice anything to solve the problem of landing on the Moon. No price was too hefty.
Ryan Gosling gives a stoic, focused performance. Neil Armstrong didn’t have a ton of personality or charisma in this movie. He speaks very little. There’s no hero speech made for the movie. It feels very real to life. Claire Foy plays Armstrong’s wife, Janet, who gets a few monologues as her marriage to Neil deteriorates due to his focused nature. She could come out of this winning some awards, it wouldn’t shock me. People like her. She’s a successful TV actress already with The Crown.
Again, going in, First Man is not concerned about the human element of space travel. It is more focused on the science. If you’re prepared for that, you’ll like it more.
There are four things I think most every little boy dreams of becoming at some point in his life. A baseball player, a fire fighter, the career path they end up taking, and an astronaut. First Man is a wonderful film for every little kid who spent hours imagining what it was like to go into outer space.
On a "See It/Stream It/Skip It" scale, I'm voting "See It".
If you liked Apollo 13, The Right Stuff, and Countdown (1967) you might enjoy First Man
4 out of 5 stars for First Man. A lot of people will find it long and dry, I didn’t. I’m secretly wondering if there’s a longer cut of this movie.