We’ll never fully realize the level of courage and sacrifice required from the astronauts of those early NASA space missions. They put everything on the line, leaving behind their families and laying down their lives in the name of science and for love of country. It often came at a great cost. And if they were successful and lucky enough to survive their missions, they came back to earth as national heroes, their immortality secured.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Space exploration movies like The Right Stuff (1983) and Apollo 13 (1995) offer a glimpse into this world. Director Damien Chazelle’s First Man is the latest in a line of space age dramas and it celebrates one of the greatest accomplishments in human history, the moon landing, through the story of one man, astronaut Neil Armstrong.
First Man follows the story of Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from the death of his young daughter, to his extensive training and his two biggest missions: Gemini 8 and Apollo 11. The story is equally split between Armstrong’s time at NASA and his work with his fellow astronauts and engineers and his home life with his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and his two sons. The film is just as much a space exploration story as it is a character study of a complicated man who suffered a tragic loss and struggles to connect with his family. Much time is given to Janet whom, one might be able to argue, is just as courageous as her husband. She has to deal with the stress of not only her husband’s dangerous missions but also his emotional unavailability. In addition she has to keep up her strength to raise her two boys while also being strong for the other astronaut’s wives who inevitably suffer great tragedies of their own.
Ryan Gosling does a marvelous job as the subdued and introspective Neil Armstrong. However I think Claire Foy has the breakout performance as his long-suffering wife Janet. She brings an intensity that not only matches beautifully with Gosling’s performance but also stands on its own. Technically the female parts are far outnumbered by the male but Foy’s performance claims so much of our attention that it feels more like its equally divided than one sided. I wouldn’t be surprised if come award season Foy will be recognized for her performance. Another counterbalance to Armstrong’s character is Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin. Buzz is the outspoken, opinionated and charismatic astronaut, the complete opposite of Neil. I love their scenes together. Jason Clarke, who plays the doomed astronaut Ed White, is very well suited for his character and for mid-20th century parts. He just has that look that works. I was happy to see one of my personal faves Ethan Embry in a small role as space engineer and astronaut Pete Conrad.
First Man must be seen on the big screen for the full impact. I watched it at my local IMAX theater after having missed an opportunity to see this at TIFF. The technical advancements in filmmaking contribute to powerful and awe inspiring depictions of Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 missions. I love how the film lingers on the moon landing, providing the original audio for those first crucial and historic moments but we also spend time in Armstrong’s personal bubble as he takes in his surroundings and taps into some of the emotion he’s been trying to suppress. The Gemini 8 scene was my favorite. It felt so realistic, almost as if I was in the space shuttle with the astronauts. We get a sense of how much power is needed and how many things have to go exactly right to thrust these astronauts into space.
First Man is a technical marvel in filmmaking that puts the audience in the spacecraft and on the moon for a thrilling experience. It’s also a reserved yet poignant character study of a man on the brink of a great achievement who is struggling with his own demons. It deals with an important subject seriously but never becomes cheesy or pretentious. A must see.