Directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy (as Neil and Janet Armstrong respectively), First Man is an impressive depiction of the moon landing. Damien Chazelle opted for a very realistic and grounded approach when tackling this groundbreaking event. Using nearly exclusively handheld camera, the film looked and felt more like a documentary than a 21st century blockbuster. The film does its best not to glorify spacefaring,;instead it provides us a very realistic look at what the astronauts had to go through for mankind to touch the moon. In fact, the film actively shows us how underprepared everything is, from having to do last-minute engineering on a seatbelt buckle using a Swiss Army knife, to how the capsule that was supposed to carry the astronauts into space looked like it was going to fall apart at any time.
On top of that, the director’s decision to frequently use close-ups and first person perspective shots effectively thrusts the audience into the shoes of Neil Armstrong. The audience feels the intensity of every shudder, every tumble and every turn of the spacecraft that Armstrong felt through the camera and sound design. My stomach churned when Armstrong had to stabilise the thingy that spins really really fast (formally known as the multi-axis spin test inertia facility), and my hair stood up as the metal envelope of the spacecrafts creaked and groaned in high-pitch shrieks.
The understated and authentic performances of Gosling and Foy augment the film in every way. They draw the audience into the 140-minute saga; they are the anchors that ground the film of such scope and ambition. They carry along with them the very sincere emotional core of the film - the tragic loss of the Armstrong’s daughter When Armstrong is shown, standing on the Moon, when the Earth is only the size of a golf ball to him, his daughter’s death links him back to his home and his family. Throughout the film, Armstrong has avoided confronting his daughter’s death, and has refused to talk about it with anyone around him, including his wife. It is only when he lands on the desolate faraway landscape of the Moon, surrounded by silence and emptiness, that he gains the catharsis he desperately needs. The shot of Armstrong standing alone on the moon, with all the vastness of space behind him, and dropping his daughter’s bracelet into the depths of a crater, in my opinion, is the most powerful moment of the film. We do not know whether Armstrong really did that in real life, but it is a perfect conclusion to the emotional turmoil experienced in the Armstrong household. Without the two strong leads, this moment would not have worked.
This film is relentlessly centred on Armstrong’s perspective. In fact, rarely are there any scenes without Neil Armstrong. This is effective in confining us within the headspace of Armstrong. This is sometimes at the expense of competent cast members who are criminally underused. From Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler to Ciarán Hinds and Corey Stoll, while the actors and the characters they portray are equally significant in the moon-landing process, their presence is never felt maily in fleeting cameos. Even Janet Armstrong, brilliant as Claire Foy, does not feel like a solid presence in the film. These supporting characters feel insignificant to the story as the film never shows us how these characters influenced Neil Armstrong. The character deaths scattered through the film, for example, the death of Ed White, one of Neil Armstrong’s closest friends, never really reinforces Armstrong’s will to go to the Moon or make him doubt the worth of space program. It feels like these deaths are necessary additions just for historical accuracy’s sake, instead of essential character moments.
The film also sacrifices many opportunities to have a more in-depth discussion of the necessity of space programs. Along the way, the film touches on the socioeconomic implications of space programs. It tries to raise the issue of: Is winning the space race worth the billions of taxpayers’ money and the many lives of talented people? Often these these thought-provoking questions are skimmed over in a short montage before more dazzling rocket launches.
Having said so, these rather nitpicky flaws do not affect the film’s enjoyability in any significant way. Ultimately, First Man is a spectacular, touching, and human celebration of humanity’s greatest strengths.