First Man is actually quite a small film surrounded by huge things. The story of one man’s struggle with grief is played out amongst huge lift-offs, huge countries bucking heads, huge moon craters and small but hugely loud capsules. All the bravado, risk and pressure you’d expect from a space exploration movie. But, the story of Neil Armstrong’s journey to be the first person on the moon is told with heartbreaking honesty in First Man - and not with the fanfares, patriotism and unbreakable ambition that is more often the case in space race storytelling. It’s a deeply personal tale of this most momentous of events that changed the world.
Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong and we meet him years before he would take that one small step at what would have been the most difficult time of his life. He’s a reserved and focused person who remains emotionally closed off in public. His motivations for joining the mission to the moon were either to be so preoccupied with the biggest challenge in the world so as to not feel grief or, to achieve something so great that it made life, living and indeed death worthwhile. There’s more than one journey here, and Gosling gives a powerful performance of a man filled with both sadness and purpose.
The other focus of the film is the pressure cooker effect that the Gemini and Apollo missions had on the families of those involved. Armstrong’s strained relationship with his wife is clearly shown by a strong performance by Claire Foy. A wife who is left to keep the home fires burning, raise the family and live with the fact that one day her husband might not come home. She’s fantastic and displays all the emotions that Gosling keeps locked inside. We see Armstrong as a loving but at times emotionally distant father, however, with so much other ground to cover with the NASA missions this is not overly explored. The bonds between the astronauts could also have been developed a little more – but I suspect they were trying to avoid cheesy-Hollywood-buddy-movie-vibe but I personally didn’t feel enough of a connection from the characters that were risking their lives together every day.
Director Damien Chazelle lets the audience have a taste of what these brave men did by giving us an insight into the sensory intensity they would have experienced. Cue rattling, claustrophobic capsules flying through the air and the powerful and eerie silence of the moon’s surface. He wants us right in the think of it. The use of sound, or lack off at times, is used cleverly as a mood changer and to confront the viewer with the gravitas of what was being achieved- and, I believe, the loneliness of grief. This is obviously paired with breathtaking visuals of Earth from afar and the stark landscape of the moon itself. And seriously, when Chazelle does give us those big wide shots you’d be pushed to find better. From a character perspective, Chezelle keeps it intimate and confronting with close up shots of these people who are trying to process the often tense and devastating hand they’ve been dealt.
First Man is not just about the journey to the moon but also a portrait of the grief and sacrifice that accompanied those that made it happen.
Reviewed by Ingrid Grenar.