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It's Out of This World

Ryan Gosling
Ryan Gosling
Universal Pictures
 141 Minutes
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy   
First Man

For those who, like me, gathered around a TV set in the summer of 1969 to watch Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, Damien Chazelle’s First Man will bring back lots of memories of an event that did wonders for an American public psyche in desperate need of good news. The previous year was perhaps the most tumultuous in American history, marred by shocking assassinations, a bitterly divisive presidential election, riots in the streets of major cities, and an increasingly unpopular foreign war. Meanwhile, the NASA program persevered in the face of one setback after another, both in terms of being bested by the Soviet Union in reaching various milestones and in a series of fatal accidents costing the lives of astronauts, including Gus Grissom, the second American in space, and Ed White, the first American to walk in space. Against that backdrop, Armstrong’s moonwalk was a rare event that unified the country in triumph as opposed to tragedy.


In making a movie about the moon landing, Chazelle (who won the Best Director Oscar two years ago) and screenwriter Josh Singer (who won a Screenplay Oscar three years ago for Spotlight) could have approached the material in several ways. Perhaps because the script was based on an authorized biography of Armstrong, the filmmakers chose to focus primarily on his character and on recreating his highly dangerous experiences, while somewhat skimming over the space program as a whole and the country’s reaction to the moment. That approach, while true to Armstrong’s character, was problematic dramatically, since Armstrong was very much an emotionally closeted, introverted man. As a result, First Man, while featuring some of the best recreations ever of spaceflights of that era, never connects with the audience in the ways that movies like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 did.


First Man opens in 1961 with Armstrong suffering two setbacks. First, an X-15 test flight to the far reaches of the atmosphere goes wrong, nearly costing Armstrong his life, and second, his infant daughter dies of cancer. Amazingly, Armstrong was back flying less than two weeks after his daughter’s funeral, and from there, he was selected as one of the second group of astronauts for the Gemini program.


Armstrong would fly in the Gemini program (becoming the first civilian to fly in space), as the commander of Gemini 8, which the first mission to successfully dock with an unmanned vehicle. Again, the mission did not go as planned, as an engine malfunction caused the vehicle to rotate at an extremely fast speed. Armstrong was able to get the craft back under control only seconds before he and fellow astronaut David Scott (Christopher Abbott) would have blacked out and possibly died. Unfortunately, Ed White (Jason Clarke), Armstrong’s best friend in the astronaut program, and Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham) weren’t as lucky, dying in a fire during pre-flight testing for the Apollo 1 mission. Ironically, Armstrong was at the White House attending a public relations function at the time. And, in perhaps, the bitterest irony of all, Armstrong took over Grissom’s spot as commander for the first lunar mission.


First Man covers these events and, of course, the ultimate Apollo 11 mission in some detail, but most of the rest of the history of the manned space program is discussed only in passing. Those who aren’t history or NASA buffs may be lost at times trying to keep track of exactly who’s who. Although the film uses titles to indicate the passage of time throughout the movie, it fails to identify any characters in that manner. As a result, various astronauts show up, played in many cases by recognizable actors, only to disappear, leaving viewers to wonder just who they are and what function they served in the program. Even David Scott, Armstrong’s Gemini 8 co-pilot, who is shown in the capsule with him in a harrowing ten minutes of footage, gets barely a mention, and I would guess most people in the audience wouldn’t be able to identify him by name. The only three fellow astronauts to make any impression are Grissom, White, and Buzz Aldrin (Cory Stoll).


Aldrin, in fact, comes off rather poorly in First Man, although his portrayal as somewhat of a cocky motormouth who was apt to talk without thinking seems reasonably accurate. In one of the film’s better touches, though, once he and Armstrong are in space, it’s all business and mutual respect for each other’s abilities. The most moving figure is the doomed Ed White, a man much more emotional than Armstrong, whose efforts at drawing Armstrong out of his shell proved unsuccessful. Jason Clarke is a perpetually underrated actor who delivers one of his better performances here.


But while Aldrin and White let their emotions show, First Man is about Armstrong, and he remains stoic almost to a fault. He winds up frequently at odds with his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), who eventually has to force Armstrong to explain to his young sons that he may die during the lunar mission. Foy and, to a lesser extent, Jason Clarke supply the emotion that Armstrong doesn’t, even when facing the trauma of dealing with the deaths of his comrades. While Gosling is quite good as Armstrong, his demeanor leaves a bit of a gap at the center of the movie that Chazelle never quite overcomes (which may have been his intention all along, in which case, it was a misguided directorial decision).


Although the central figure of First Man is somewhat of a cipher, the movie succeeds brilliantly at capturing the realities of 1960s space flight. The Star Wars and Star Trek universes have given audiences a false sense of spaciousness, with pilots essentially sitting in Hollywood versions of a gamer’s living room as they make life-and-death decisions. In reality, the capsules were cramped, and movement was awkward. Chazelle films these scenes and many others using handheld cameras in rather extreme close-ups. Thus, Armstrong’s wild spin in Gemini 8 and the fire that rapidly engulfs Apollo 1 are even more harrowing than what audiences probably imagined.


In First Man, Chazelle succeeds in demonstrating just how difficult and dangerous the moon landing actually was, even though, what most people remember, the moonwalk itself, went very smoothly. At times, his depiction of the voyages is more confusing than enlightening, as he leaves many events unexplained and confusing. However, he definitely shows how Neil Armstrong had the right stuff as an astronaut. Unfortunately, whether Armstrong also had the right stuff as a husband and father remains a mystery. First Man is, at best, a first step in understanding just who that first man really was.

In this clip, Ryan Gosling crashes his lunar test vehicle in training.

Read other reviews of First Man: 

First Man (2018) on IMDb