As he took one giant leap for mankind and into the history books as a legend, Neil Armstrong was still an elusive, uncomfortable and reluctant hero. First Man, from writer Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) and director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) attempts to delve into the man behind the mission as it documents NASA’s first journey to the moon and back. Where most movies set in space highlight the vast expanse, First Man tracks more personal, with an almost claustrophobic and certainly uncomfortable view from the tight quarters in the space vessel. This cramped approach doesn’t lessen the impact, the overall sense of wonder, of space travel, if anything it makes the fantastical feel all the more real.
As Armstrong, Ryan Gosling is perfectly stoic and hard to read; sturdy and silent, the consummate military man. Quietly handsome and well-mannered, Armstrong became a leader because of intelligence and grace, even after he was overshadowed by louder and more determined colleagues, such as Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll). The film doesn’t deify Armstrong though, as his willingness to further his career comes at the expense of dealing with his family, a supportive wife (Claire Foy), two young sons, and a daughter he buried when she was still a child. Although there isn’t any surprise revelation, the deeper focus on Armstrong comes across more as a character piece than a historical checklist.
Chazelle branches out from his musically-inclined past to focus on a much broader subject without sacrificing character. Despite the attention to Armstrong as both a person and legend in making, there’s an underlying sense of hope that fuels the movie. This sense that landing on the moon was something bigger than us, as humanity, and as Americans, even as it was so obviously driven by the advancements of the Russians. As it recreates that famous scene on the moon, the weight of the moment isn’t lost as it is filtered through the accomplishment of Armstrong himself. Without tilting towards the political, the film still manages to highlight a simpler time when it was even possible to move above the red and blue division lines and celebrate the pure American moment in the service of science and exploration.
Not to suggest the film is perfect. It’s a tad long, spending a little too much time in certain moments that feel unnecessary to the overall narrative. Claire Foy, even though she’s great, is saddled with another doting wife and mother character that is slotted into all these movies. Supporting characters played by Jason Clarke, Patrick Fugit, Kyle Chandler, Christopher Abbott, Ciaran Hinds, Pablo Schreiber, Ethan Embry, and Brian d’Arcy James are all fine, but none given much emphasis. This is Gosling and Chazelle’s show, and they each bring their A-game even if the film itself falls a little short.
My Grade – B+