By Ian Hughes
OCT 19, 2018
★★★★1/2 PG-13 Released Oct. 12, 2018 (Universal Pictures)
First Man stars Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong in the years leading up to and after his celebrated mission to the moon in 1969. The film, which is the second collaboration between Gosling and Director Damien Chazelle, after 2016’s La La Land, is a stirring look at the trials and tribulations of an American hero.
The greatest thing I noticed about the film was how authentic it was. From the period setting and costumes to the painstaking recreations of the Apollo and Gemini capsules the astronauts launched in, the film is obsessed with authenticity and aims to transport the viewer to the world of 1960’s-era NASA. The film leaves the viewers feeling as if they were watching a film made in the 60’s, with the picture quality appearing to be almost grainy and hyper-saturated. The film feels very real, which is essential in a retelling of an historical event.
Underneath the shiny 60’s veneer, however, lies a tragic and heartfelt story of love and perseverance through the toughest of times. Early on in the film, Neil’s daughter Karen passes away, due to cancer, at the age of two. This event haunts Armstrong throughout the rest of the film and his inner conflict culminates in a beautiful moment on the moon that I won’t spoil here. Death and mourning are a constant in Armstrong’s life as an astronaut, when a number of close friends and coworkers die in tragic accidents, while trying to advance the Apollo and Gemini programs. Apollo 1’s disastrous malfunction that resulted in the tragic deaths of astronauts Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Armstrong’s friend Ed White had a serious impact on Neil. Chazelle uses these devastating events to tear away piece by piece at the mystique and bravado of the space program, and Neil Armstrong, in order to tell a personal story of how the hero we all know got to where he did.
This choice to focus more on the intimate drama leads to some compelling performances, particularly from Gosling (Armstrong), whose stoic demeanor belies the grief and fear that gnaws at his soul, and from Claire Foy (Armstrong’s wife Janet), who has to act as the glue holding her family, and sometimes her friends’ families, together. Janet and Neil are perfect opposites — one reserved, one outspoken and feisty — and they serve as great leads to drive the film’s storyline.
Finally, the score and cinematic technique of the film are phenomenal. The score, composed by Justin Hurwitz, is both rousing and heartfelt, with sad undertones that make way to tense, exciting moments of historical action. A particular standout track is “The Landing”, which mixes almost Morricone-like Western orchestrals with the pomp of something like the Rocky theme. The cinematography is particularly great in scenes involving the launches, as the camera stays inside the capsules to show just how claustrophobic these vehicles really were for the astronauts. The film owes a lot to the Philip Kaufman classic The Right Stuff in its exploration of the space program, but that’s not a bad movie to model.
First Man is in theatres now, and should be for a while, due to 2019 awards season rolling around very soon. I would recommend seeing this feature, if only for the impressive IMAX scene at the end, as it is an exciting and beautiful tribute to an American icon from a different perspective than might be expected.