Political capital, time, money and lives. All of these were spent and sacrificed to push mankind out of the atmosphere and travel to the Moon. In “First Man,” all of these sacrifices weigh on Neil Armstrong, played here by Ryan Gosling.
As the name and the main real life character implies, “First Man” is about the lead up and mission by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to successfully land on the Moon. Director Damien Chazelle, known for his work helming “Whiplash” and “La La Land” takes audiences on a biographical tour this time around, documenting Armstrong’s training and following the astronaut’s journey to becoming the lead man on Apollo 11.
The picture covers both the continuous work at NASA, while also showcasing the lives of the agency’s workers in their home life. Specifically, the movie documents Armstrong’s relationship with his family, including his wife Janet (Claire Foy).
There are two story threads running alongside each other in “First Man,” one centering on NASA’s progression of technology, engineering and training to send astronauts off this planet. The other is the personal tale, showing how such a dangerous job can add stress on a family.
Both of these threads bring really good aspects to the table. The sequences taking place at NASA’s headquarters, or in the actual spacecraft, are thrilling, engaging and overall rather interesting, as it dramatizes history. The moments at home, meanwhile, do give the film much of its emotional weight. This is done by showcasing Armstrong’s efforts to be a good husband and father, despite the stress from his work.
One of the issues, though, is that these two story threads never tie together as well as I would’ve liked until the film’s third act. The two seem a bit detached from each other at times, almost feeling like different movies in certain moments. This could be a cause of the space mission aspect being so calculating and procedural that it largely differs from its family drama counterpart.
However, the two eventually come together in great fashion in the final act, with dramatic moments taking place in Armstrong’s professional and personal life. Plus, this isn’t necessarily the biggest problem for a movie to have. While seeming a bit disconnected at times, both the story of the Moon mission and Armstrong’s home life are compelling in their own right.
Of course making a lot of this work is Gosling, who gives a very reserved performance, something he’s done in the past with movies like 2011’s “Drive.” While subtle, though, Gosling’s performance says a whole lot. The weight Armstrong carries on his shoulders, the grief he feels after a personal tragedy, and his dedication to his work comes through to great effect every Gosling is on screen.
Equally as good in the movie is Foy, who delivers what will likely be one of the performances nominated a few times this award season. The passion and emotion she brings to the screen as Armstrong’s wife is a major factor to the family dynamic working as well as it does.
“First Man” also earns a lot of credit for its stunning cinematography and attention to detail. There are many moments where this aspect shines through, but none more than in the movie’s climax on the surface of the Moon. It really puts it into perspective just how much of an accomplishment it was.
The film does stumble a bit, though, from using a “shaky” cam method in a few moments. This is often done when showing the characters inside the spacecraft and experiencing turbulence. It’s understandable to know what they were going for, allowing the audience to understand what it was like inside such a craft, but sometimes it did make it hard to see exactly what was happening and it did take me out of the experience at times.
“First Man” is a fantastic historical picture that skips over much of the pomp and circumstance. The film isn’t about hero worship, it’s a movie that tells a very human story, which in turn makes the human accomplishment at the climax feel very important.
The movie isn’t a rousing, romanticized picture, but rather an honest portrait that says the people at NASA, including those who did what was once thought impossible, were human just like you and me. There are a few flaws here, but for the most part, Chazelle has added another great addition to his filmography. 4.4 out of 5.