In 2016, director Damien Chazelle set out to create a modern musical movie that paid tribute to the classic ones who came before it in La La Land starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. That film won six Academy Awards. This weekend, his epic Neil Armstrong picture, First Man opens in theaters and also stars Gosling in yet another winning performance. Based on the book by James R. Hansen and written by Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) First Man aims to show the struggles and costs associated when dealing with one of the most dangerous missions on earth and in the heavens with much of it from Armstrong’s point of view … and a lot of close-ups.
Almost poetically, Singer explores the subject of grief along with the excitement of landing on the moon for the first time, but it was Ryan that encouraged Chazelle to present “the kitchen and the moon” approach to the film showing the big and small moments that happened in the lives of the Armstrong family during this multi-year journey. And he did that with a lot more close-up scenes than one would expect from a space travel movie. Throughout the film, the camera zooms in on Gosling’s eyes and then his view from his pilot’s seat looking out of the window. There isn’t much to see out there, but with the sound of his frantic breathing, the whole effect makes you feel as if you are riding along beside him.
First Man, which spans from 1961 to 1969, has a documentary “you are there” vibe to it. Surprisingly, there isn’t a lot of dialogue in the film letting the pictures speak louder than words. The film also shies away from having a perfect Hollywood look to it. The Armstrong home, at least as portrayed here, was very modest. The family, normal. The marriage, a bit strained.
Neil’s second child, Karen was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in the middle part of her brain stem in June of 1961. She died of pneumonia in January of 1962 and it was a blow that shook him to his core. Instead of talking about her death, he instead busied himself with his work. Of course, this also took a toll on his marriage to his wife Janet (played by Claire Foy). It’s not a glamorous role, but a realistic one. Both Gosling and Foy are fantastic portraying almost polar opposites. Neil was extremely private and Janet wanted to communicate. This battle comes to a head near the end of the film before Neil makes his most famous trip. He wants to leave the house without saying goodbye to his kids and Janet is not having any of it. Foy’s scene here is one of the best of the whole film.
First Man also stars Jason Clarke as Ed White, Olivia Hamilton as Pat White, Matthew Glave as Chuck Yeager, Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, Pablo Schreiber as Jim Lovell, Shea Whigham as Gus Grissom, Ethan Embry as Pete Conrad, Patrick Fugit as Elliott See, Christopher Abbott as David Scott and Skyler Bible as Richard F. Gordon.
This movie is unlike other astronaut stories. The storytelling pace is a lot slower. The film runs almost two and half hours long and you feel every minute of it. (I kind of wanted to yell in the theatre “are we there yet?” but that might have more to do with the loud kid sitting behind me who talked through the entire film.) And for those looking forward to seeing a lot of IMAX footage from space may be disappointed. They’re there, but not as much as you would think. There’s just so many close ups of Gosling’s eyes taking up a large portion of the film. And as for the American flag not shown during Armstrong’s first stepping onto the surface of the moon, I don’t know why it wasn’t included, but it’s absence didn’t take anything away from the movie either.
First Man is also unlike similar movies in another way. While no doubt triumphant, the film still manages to tell the story in a somber tone and without a lot of fanfare. Over the years, the Armstrong’s lost friends who died while working on the space program. At one point, Janet tells a friend that they got really good at funerals. I understand the great achievement that was made with the space program, but after watching the film and seeing the toll it took on the Armstrong family (and the other astronauts as well) I have to wonder if it was all worth it.
(Main Image: Universal Pictures)
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.