'First Man' Review
For fans of space, 'First Man' is well worth the price of admission.
Release Date: October 12, 2018
MPAA Rating: PG-13
‘First Man’ is a look at the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenwriter(s): Josh Singer
Producer(s): Marty Bowen, Damien Chazelle, Wyck Godfrey, Isaac Klausner
Cast: Ryan Gosling (Neil Armstrong), Claire Foy (Janet Armstrong), Corey Stoll (Buzz Aldrin), Lukas Hass (Mike Collins), Kyle Chandler (Deke Slayton), Ciaran Hinds (Gene Kranz), Ethan Embry (Pete Conrad), Jason Clarke (Edward Higgins White), Pablo Schreiber (Jim Lovell), Shea Whigham (Gus Grissom), Patrick Fugit (Elliot See), Christopher Abbott (Dave Scott)
Editor: Tom Cross
Cinematographer: Linus Sandgren
Production Designer: Nathan Crowley
Casting Director(s): Sarah Dowling, Megan Lewis, Francine Maisler
Music Score: Justin Hurwitz
First Man tells the story of Neil Armstrong’s foray into NASA and his eventual Apollo 11 mission in which he and Buzz Aldrin were the first humans to set foot on the moon. It’s as much a story about Armstrong (Ryan Gosling from La La Land and The Nice Guys) the astronaut as it is about Armstrong the man, but it feels equally as much a love letter to the pioneers of space travel and the engineering behind it. Armstrong’s relationship with NASA’s various employees serves as a focal point, but so does his relationship with his wife, Janet (Claire Foy from “The Crown” and Unsane), and her struggles with a husband who devotes his life to a dangerous career.
Strictly from a story-telling perspective, First Man is fairly straightforward. It has its time jumps to make sure that it hits all the important points of Armstrong’s career, and it does well to introduce as many of the role players as possible. Folks like Elliot See (Horsemen‘s Patrick Fugit) and Edward White (Winchester’s Jason Clarke) get enough screen time to communicate their impact on Armstrong’s ambition, but others fall by the wayside. Luckily, most everyone knows where the story is going, so any weaknesses with the script can be glossed over.
Really, the major reason to see First Man is for the NASA scenes, which are treated with such realism that they are uncomfortably tense. Director Damien Chazelle may be best known for films with a musical bent like La La Land and Whiplash, but here he uses claustrophobic sets and camera work to communicate just how dangerous and marvelous space travel is. Shots of metal welds, rivets, and screws show that these men are hurtling at unbelievable speeds with only sheets of metal keeping them from certain death. Every rattle and creak is heightened to give the sense that at any moment everything could come apart and there is nothing these astronauts could do. First Man has that white-knuckle approach throughout all of its space travel scenes, and it makes every other space movie look fake by comparison. If there is one overbearing compliment to be paid towards the movie, it’s that it strips away all of the glamour of being an astronaut and treats the profession like true rocket science.
With so much going on in the visual and design side, there wasn’t much for Gosling to do to make First Man any more believable. He communicates the wonder and the confidence of Armstrong well, but he also adds vulnerability to the mix. First Man portrays Armstrong as a man with a drive that couldn’t be stopped, but whose emotional core always had the potential of derailing that. Gosling helps bring that to the screen extremely well, even if a lot of his best acting is done purely through his eyes.
First Man‘s entire cast is solid. Foy balances out Gosling’s performance with an affected Janet who struggles with a husband who is distant at times. Outside of that, though, there aren’t too many memorable performances. They serve more as “oh hey that’s a guy whose name I know” speed bumps on the road than actual impactful individuals.
For the space stuff alone, though, First Man is worth the price of admission. It’s almost impossible to go back to the days where space shuttles looked cozy and the astronauts were casually gliding through zero gravity. Chazelle strips that all away to truly highlight what makes space travel so miraculous and show the true bravery of the space program at its pioneering stage. It is both incredible and terrifying to experience the film, but it deserves to be seen.
First Man‘s realism depends largely on its sound. Every creak, whir, or click is essential to giving the audience a sense of just how dangerous space travel is. Even though you aren’t in these cramped capsules with the astronauts, the film does well to make you feel as if you are. And that wouldn’t have worked without the sound.