FIRST MAN (7 out of 10) Directed by Damien Chazelle; Written by Josh Singer; Starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Ciaran Hinds, Kyle Chandler; Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language; Running time 141 minutes; In wide release October 12. (And let’s not forget one of the Executive Producers–Steven Spielberg)
As First Man’s title would indicate, it’s a film less about space and more about the man who made “a giant leap for mankind.” The movie chronicles the life of Neil Armstrong and NASA’s achievements through his eyes from 1961 until 1969 when the Apollo 11 mission fulfilled its goal to land on the moon. Ryan Gosling plays a tortured Armstrong who is beset by tragedy after tragedy. Both personally and professionally. For a film that takes a look into one of mankind‘s greatest achievements, its tone is rather bleak. This isn’t a criticism but merely an observation. The lunar mission was not accomplished without sacrifices, and First Man gives us a harrowing glance into just how dangerous it can be to be an astronaut.
And when I say these events are viewed through Armstrong’s (Gosling’s) eyes, I meant it. His eyes are everywhere. Close up. Looking serious. Looking amazed. Looking sad. Oh my goodness if someone did a supercut of how often the camera zooms in on Gosling’s eyes it would probably take up a full half hour. But it’s through his eyes that we see not only the majesty of the view beyond Earth’s orbit but also the blood, sweat, and tears that went into each mission from physics and formulas and problem-solving abilities both here and beyond.
The film gives a real sense of what it must be like to be confined inside the various shuttles and the toll they take on the body. There’s the terrifying sense that they’re out in space with only their equipment and intelligence standing between them and another NASA disaster.
Claire Foy (The Crown) is Janet Armstrong, portrayed as a suffering wife who stays home with the children and tries to connect with her distant husband. Not just emotionally distant, but so distant he’s literally beyond Earth’s orbit. She attends funerals for her husband’s colleagues, never knowing if he will be next, but she can barely get him to sit down and talk frankly with his children.
The cinematography, particularly of the at-home scenes is stark. Realistic. No glamour shots, no soft lighting to blur out wrinkles. It’s reminiscent of a documentary, often with quick cuts of flashbacks. It’s out in space where the beauty is revealed. Even the music is used sparingly, with subtle accompaniments and one pivotal moment punctuated by an epic piece, reminiscent of James Horner or Jerry Goldsmith. I would have put money on it being James Newton Howard since the former two have passed, but the composer is La La Land’s Justin Hurwitz, who previously worked with director Chazelle on that film.
It’s a film about loss and exploration. How loss drives a man to explore, to seek answers, to understand. Bad things happen but it’s possible to learn from mistakes. Create new life. Start over. But while Armstrong was the “First Man,” he didn’t get there alone, and that giant leap was for all of us. A footprint into the future and changing our view of the moon forever after.