Dealing with the space race to land on the moon during the 1960’s and primarily Neil Armstrong’s mental state during that time, First Man is an odd beast.
Forgoing the usual aggressive amounts of frenzied flag waving this kind of movie usually promotes, Oscar winning, La La Land director Damien Chazelle is far more interested in the minutiae of the inner workings of both space travel and it’s enigmatic main character, resulting in an emotionally complicated, yet ultimately rewarding experience.
Wounded to his core by the death of his daughter, Armstrong is drafted into the NASA space programme with the aim of beating the Russians to the moon. What with morale in the country at an all time low due to the endless rumblings of the Vietnam War and the really real threat that flying people to another land mass in space is very, VERY lethal, the levels of pressure are through the roof.
As the project burns through pilots and engineers at a worrying rate (and in some tragic cases, literally), Armstrong becomes more and more withdrawn from his wife and sons. Will making it to the moon be worth the cost?
So, as anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of American history knows, they make it (no conspiracy theories, please), however the film deals mostly on the journey to the journey, dealing with the harrowing emotional toll that comes with making giant leaps for mankind.
Step forward Ryan Gosling, a modern master at projecting pain and anguish through those pretty eyes of his as his face projects sad dignity to everyone around him. In many ways it’s the part he was born to play, ticking all those Gosling boxes placing the astronaut alongside all the other emotionally stunted loners in his repertoire. In all honesty, he’s pretty darn good. Behold the scene when forced to finally confess the truth to his infant sons about the motality rate of his mission, Armstrong awkwardly approaches it like an interview, unable to open up even to his own children. However, such coldness would (and sometimes does) make the film drag so give huge thanks to Claire Foy playing his wife. Noble, strong and carrying the immense weight of such a marriage, Foy’s performance anchors the film and brings a much needed humanizing factor to proceedings.
You see First Man is incredibly interested in the nuts and bolts of space travel. Whole scenes of tense, nerve shredding test flights are set entirely inside the unbearably claustrophobic cockpits with no external shots whatsoever. Close ups of groaning screws and rattling panels raise legitimate panic in your chest, which is quite the accomplishment when the whole world knows the end of your story.
For all the talent in front of and behind the camera, however, a good deal of you will find First Man simply too cold and even boring to get along with. It’s not a unfair complaint too, long periods of the movie contain tech talk, or buzz-cutted bosses debating the dangers and merits of the morality what they’re trying to achieve. Plus Gosling’s SO effective in his role you kinda wanna reach into the film and slap some sense into him. It’s somewhat damaging to the patience but it’s actually incredibly worth it in the end as the film finally releases it’s tight grip for the final mission and revels in pure triumph. The claustrophobia and mood lifts as the module descends and you feel like you’ve undertaken the trip yourself.
As complicated, off-beat and internalized as it’s lead, this movie won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but when it comes to an uncompromising movie experience that puts you in the pilot’s seat, First Man shoots for the moon.