First Man, Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to La La Land, is a breathtaking and intimate look at the hardships and triumphs of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling). Written by Josh Singer (Academy Award winner for Best Original Screenplay for Spotlight), the film is based on James R. Hansen’s book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong.
Following Armstrong’s acceptance into the NASA’s Gemini program through the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, First Man does not center its story on the technological facets that led him to be the first person to walk on the moon. Instead, the focus is on Armstrong’s personal experience through the historical achievement, beginning with a personal tragedy, the death of Armstrong’s two-year-old daughter Karen.
The reserved Armstrong does not express his emotions of the traumatic event to anyone, instead, retreating to his home office to break down in private. This reticent demeanour is maintained throughout Gosling’s subtle performance. When his fellow astronauts die throughout the Space Race, Armstrong delivers the tragic news to his wife Janet (Claire Foy) as a matter-of-fact. Death envelops Armstrong in his quest for the moon, including a few close calls himself, but this withdrawn nature can lead the audience to feel a lack of connection with him at times.
Janet is the rock of the family, trying to deal with her husband’s detached behavior while preparing her two sons for the possibility of their father never returning home. One of her only insight into her husband’s high-risk operations is a small radio that relays mission control communications, which can be turned off by NASA at any dire moment. Foy has several standout scenes, most notably when Apollo 11 looms and her husband’s lack of communication reaches its breaking point.
The Gemini and Apollo missions are a highlight of the film, and are suitably visceral and intense, with the viewpoint almost exclusively remaining inside the spacecraft. It can feel claustrophobic at times as the only view of space is a small triangular window, but you share this feeling with the astronauts. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography adds to the realism of the missions, making it feel like a documentary of the era. The moon landing sequence was shot in IMAX, and I implore you to seek the film out in this format as I can only imagine the heightened beauty that the format offers.
First Man provides a unique insight into Armstrong’s voyage to the moon, without sacrificing the technical wonder and intensity that comes with space exploration.