First Man could be the best space race film created to date! Plenty of films have taken us to the moon. Plenty have shown the complications that can arise when an astronaut is alone, hundreds of thousands of miles away from the Earth. None have captured the human sacrifice, internal struggle, and loneliness of getting there so well as this motion picture.
Director Damien Chazelle, hot off his success with La La Land, tells the story of the life of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) in the eight years leading up to his infamous walk on the moon on July 20, 1969. With a film like this, you know the outcome, but it’s the journey to get there that’s intriguing, entertaining, and educational. Chazelle does more showing than telling with his production of the story. His camera predominately stays in tight on his subjects, forcing us to connect with them, see what they see, and absorb small moments that we may usually miss in wides or mid-shots.
Sound is another important element in the film. Every breath, turn of a knob, rocket roaring, bone crunching accidents, and even the silence of space matters in this film. It accentuates the moment and submerges the viewer further into the emotional weight or lack there of in a scene. The grand stakes of the mission to the moon is perfectly balanced between moments of devastating failure and nuanced humor backed by a beautiful score from Justin Hurwitz. Hurwitz manages to insert a piece of percussion that ticks throughout many of the songs subconsciously pervading the sense of time, whether it’s running out or seemingly nonexistent in space.
The casting is spot on with this ensemble. Gosling turns in a stellar performance as Armstrong with an emotionally distant, introspective yet caring portrayal of the American hero. In films set in the 60’s we typically see the stay at home mother and housewife character portrayed as seen and not heard but there for support. Yet, Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong is able to evoke this enormous sense of a highly intelligent woman, emotionally strong enough to shoulder the burden of raising kids with the ever present reality that her husband could lose his life at any moment. With notable performances from Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton, and Jason Clarke as Edward White you get the authenticity of the best indie film performances in a blockbuster.
While the film never focuses specifically on the politics of the time, you are able to get glimpses of the economics of the day through various meetings NASA has with politicians and protests. Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey On The Moon” gets a surprising moment in the sun during this film. The powerful spoken word allows Chazelle to highlight the disparity of funding for the expensive space program versus the hard working citizens paying for it with tax dollars while trying to survive.
First Man is a film about perspective. It gives the viewer a moment to feel what it must have been like to be in Armstrong’s shoes, what his family and other family’s who lost loved ones for the mission endured, and how small we are in the universe. The focus on character and story, using all of the components of film to engage its’ viewer, makes this film soar above all other race to the moon films that have come before it. Treat yourself to an IMAX showing of this film, because it deserves star treatment!