Movie Review: First Man

A deeply personal telling of an extraordinary achievement

First Man begins with an intense crash landing from Neil Armstrong’s early days as a test pilot. The said sequence plays on longer than expected, with claustrophobic camera angles, narrow field of view shots and extremely shaky footage that would make The Bourne series look like a Lord of the Rings in comparison. Through this opening sequence however, director Damiene Chazelle of Whiplash and La La Land fame lays down several unspoken rules that set a framework for the rest of the movie to follow.

One, this retelling of the tremendously well known moon landing missions is more of an experience rather than an epic. Chazelle seeks inspiration by the likes of Dunkirk and the opening half hour of Saving Private Ryan in that the movie is grounded in visceral verisimilitude rather than a more scenic exploration of space. It’s more akin then to the intimate parts of Interstellar rather than its vast expanses and even starkly contrasting to Stanley Kubrick’s timeless masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Often times, you find yourself thrust in the middle of the action, with frames designed and chosen to show the protagonist’s point of view. The end result is that flight sequences put you right in the compressed cockpit and make you feel as though you were in the journey itself, which can be disorienting and nauseating at times, exactly as it was intended.

Two, this interpretation is also far more personal than perhaps some of the previous attempts at telling this story (happy to be corrected). Chazelle works on a script that focuses on Neil’s emotional turmoils with the personal and professional tragedies that he goes through and tries to bring out how, the maddening sounds of aeronautical machinery drown out his personal sorrows and act as a sort of catharsis for him, distracting him from his internal woes. It also shows how his wife (as also the wives of his comrades) doesn’t have any similar means of escape and is instead trapped between attending to the kids and incessantly fretting over her husband’s survival in the numerous Apollo and Gemini test runs.

Three, which stems from an amalgamation of the above two, is that this is more an emotional drama rather than an epic space mission. And so, the moon landing is merely the outcome; the emphasis, is more on the obstacles, struggles and setbacks Neil had to go through to reach that moment. And in doing so, it successfully convinces us of the immense effort and hardships and last-minute calls undertaken by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in becoming the first ones to step foot on lunar surface.

Unfortunately, First Man gives us little insight into Neil as a person, except rather accurately conveying the stoic and cold nature of his personality which I believe, was a trait shared by pretty much all astronauts of the time, preventing sentiment from clouding their judgment in critical life-threatening matters. It would’ve been nice to see some more personal background to Neil’s story, including where he came from and a little more perspective into his obsession with space although as limited as this material is, it’s minimal use certainly heightens its impact.

Likewise, the final mission itself is also rather sparse in treatment, especially when you factor in the movie’s almost two and a half hour run time. This was an important moment, not just for the United States, but the world as a whole. There are certainly hints of the bigger picture out there, of how getting to the moon first had as much of an exploratory angle to it as a political one, with hints of the Soviet-US rivalry and space race echoing through and through, of the importance of the mission and yet the wastefulness and sheer futility of efforts, of the difficulty of making the common man realize the importance of getting this done when the world is busy dealing with racial discrimination, hunger issues and other problems that could benefit from the funds redirected towards NASA instead. And it all eventually comes together, albeit ever so briefly, when this same world that criticized America’s efforts now finds themselves backing, celebrating and rejoicing at Neil’s victory. I for one could’ve certainly used more scenes of the world watching Neil live that would’ve conveyed a stronger sense of the significantly global repercussions this achievement had.

But this is Damiene Chazelle’s movie and he knows what he wants to achieve with it. And so, First Man tells a familiar, renowned and iconic event through the intensely personal lens of Neil Armstrong’s life. In doing so, he not only gives it a fresh perspective (something that’s necessary given how well known and seeped into lore the story is by now) but also restricts the movie’s scope to focus a lot more on Neil and his family rather than the several others that were a part of the Apollo 11 Landing missions.

Chazelle severely underplays some of the biggest events and losses that Neil faces. He resists the urge and temptation to have characters launch into inspirational or saddening monologues, often letting silence do the talking. In one particularly harrowing sequence, three astronauts find themselves charred in a test exercise due to an uncontrollable and quickly spreading fire sparked by some short circuiting but Chazelle’s direction means the gory details of the tragedy are replaced by thin emanating fumes and a subsequent phone call, informing Armstrong of the disaster. The general audience is instead left to imagine the horror of the mishap, which makes it far more frightening in retrospect.

Ryan Gosling complements Chazelle’s vision by playing Neil as subdued as possible, with seemingly perfunctory reactions to events. Only twice does he break down in the movie, and both have to do with the loss of his daughter to cancer early on in the film. Every tragedy or achievement is significantly downplayed, almost as if to reiterate the grim reality that it’s a part of life. On the other hand, the building suspense and the impending threat and danger the characters are in are allowed plenty of room to breathe and play out in fully detail. You know the direction is commendable when you genuinely fear if the characters are going to make it out alive despite very well knowing there’s no way Neil Armstrong is going to die in the film; that’s some strong suspension of disbelief out there.

Also subtle, yet effective is Justin Hurwitz’s score which, with its eerie haunting themes leads to a rather unique, disturbing and yet memorable composition. It lingers on with you as the credits start rolling and has depression written all over it. Tom Cross does a brilliant job splashing together bits and pieces of what would’ve apparently turned out as shaky-cam footage during principal photography into some coherent narrative that depicts the sense of danger Neil often finds himself in, while effectively balancing the noise out with the silence that accompanies quieter more intimate moments. I would’ve appreciated the use of lesser shaky cam but I can’t deny it has a somewhat personal effect under Chazelle’s guidance. Linus Sandgren works with Chazelle to create a world of extreme closeups, where every pore, bead of sweat or tear shed by a character is clearly visible. This only demands some real performances from the actors and both Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy are simply splendid in their roles and share a kind of muted chemistry I’ve barely seen in all my years of watching film.

Technically, First Man is outstanding at every level and will almost certainly fool you into thinking they didn’t use any visual effects at all (but did they?). It’s shot primarily on 35 mm film, with even 16 mm employed for the opening sequences. The result is lots of grainy image, giving it an old-school filmic and mythic quality, almost convincing you that you’re watching a 60s period piece. And while the complete movie isn’t reformatted for the IMAX aspect ratio, the final moon landing sequences were purportedly shot in 70 mm IMAX and benefit from the enhanced clarity, making the experience seem that much more raw with the 1.85:1 aspect ratio engulfing you into outer space.

First Man is overwhelming, more emotionally than scale-wise. By choosing to keep the focus on Neil, Chazelle prevents the movie from coming across as an American propaganda piece and highlights the human achievement behind the feat. Yet, underneath all that, is the story of a man who lost a lot, and concurrently cultivated an obsession with reaching the moon so that by the time he does reach there, it feels like a well-deserved victory. Neil’s eyes are fixated on the moon in several moments in the movie, each time getting metaphorically closer and closer until he finds himself staring at the landmass from a few feet above. It’s a stark reminder of how maniacally possessed, determined and driven you need to be to stride towards that distant goal post you’ve been long staring at. It also demystifies the entire effort behind the Apollo missions that was somehow lost in the bevy of blockbusters that chose to simplify the event. This crescendo of feelings reaches its climax when Neil finally steps foot on the distant moon, gazing at the Earth from a distance, marking both, one giant step for man, and one giant leap for mankind.

Overall Score: 8.5 out of 10.0

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