“First Man” is first and foremost a biopic centered around Neil Armstrong – the first man to set foot on the moon. It is a touching story, one filled with love, death, grief, and courage. It is a visceral experience that touches the heart in the most intimate of ways, exploring a man that many Americans (especially young ones) have never felt a connection with aside from one historical event.
Ryan Gosling is known for playing stoic, reserved characters that engage in more thought than dialogue. He understands the medium of film so well that he has chosen to convey emotions not through words, but through expressions and actions. His style lends itself perfectly to the role of Neil Armstrong – a quiet, intelligent man with more courage than the brawniest military man or the most well-spoken politician. The film explores Neil’s life in the period of the 1960s, from his daughter’s passing in 1961 to the moon landing in 1969. We find out that there was a lot more to Neil’s life than just an obsession with getting to the moon – if anything, his drive came from his grief. His work was a distraction from the constant mourning he experienced after the death of his daughter.
Chazelle showcases visual storytelling at its best in “First Man.” Aside from getting wonderfully passionate performances from his actors, the technical scenes are embraced with such a high sense of realism that one could easily feel claustrophobic or disoriented. If there were ever a film that dissuaded a child from wanting to be an astronaut, this would be it. Chazelle brings us closer to experiencing what a trip into outer space would be like than any other director has before him. At times, “First Man” feels more like a documentary – and while I can’t fault it for its realism, it does take away a bit of the cinematic wonder that I wanted to experience.
There’s something about the way that “First Man” was shot that makes it feel like it could have been made in the period it takes place. While some reviewers have stated that the film looks crisp and clear, I found it to be a bit grainy, evoking a sense of nostalgia and grittiness that made the experience incredibly immersive. The constant spinning and rocking of the camera might grow old for some, and at times it did for me, but the grittiness is part of the realism. The moon landing couldn’t have been handled better. We witness it from the perspective of Neil as he comes down the steps and utters one of the most memorable phrases in all of history.
“First Man” achieves everything it set out to – it is a realistic story about one man’s emotional journey to the moon. The film, like the voyage, is not for the faint of heart. Although there’s no violence or gore, it’s deeply upsetting on an emotional and physical level. The film opens with a jarring test flight of the X-15 rocket plane that lets us know right away that we are not here for rousing speeches or swelling triumphs. Every minute was a struggle for Neil, and so shall it be for us. After that, we experience the death of Neil’s daughter, seeing clips of his futile attempts to find treatments that could save her. When asked at his interview with NASA whether his daughter’s passing would influence his performance, he straightly answers, “I think it would be unreasonable to assume that it wouldn’t have some effect.” The perseverance and pragmatism of the man is inspiring.
“First Man” has sadly been hit with controversy. Let me state unequivocally that “First Man” is not an unpatriotic film, rather its focus was on the man instead of the act. The dichotomy that exists between the emotional journey of Neil and the moon landing itself is a testament to its narrative prowess. The American flag is seen everywhere in the film; on the uniforms, on the rockets, waving outside of homes, and on the moon – yes, even on the moon. Although the flag planting itself is not shown, we do see a shot of the flag stuck in the moon’s surface next to the landing module. There are plenty of pro-American images and comments. The film doesn’t try to take away from the nation’s achievement, although I wish it had spent at least some time reveling in it.
“First Man” is a film everyone should see. It is not only important from a historical perspective, but also from a filmmaking one. It is an experience unlike any other. There is a scene where Armstrong says, “…I don’t think it’ll be exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it’ll be more the fact that it allows us to see things. That maybe we should have seen a long time ago. But just haven’t been able to until now.” He might as well have been speaking about the film.