“First Man” isn’t flashy at all. If you were expecting an eye-popping, thrill-a-minute action film about NASA’s mission to land a man on the moon, you’re going to leave disappointed. If you’re a space nerd and know NASA’s history, you’ll find much to love about this film.
Ryan Gosling And director Damien Chazelle reteam for a mostly understated dramatic account of Neil Armstrong (Gosling) and his life during the 1960s. The film presents more of an intimate, familial focus on the man and his sacrifices rather than a patriotic rah rah” retelling of the space race. Much screen time is devoted to Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) dealing with tragedy (the death of a child) to the harsh reality of the dangers of his chosen profession (a heart to heart dining room table chat telling his sons that he may never come back from his latest mission).
The film has a surprising low-budget feel that’s well-suited to Chazelle’s style and doesn’t stray far from his indie film roots. He choose to focus on realism rather than over-the-top special effects and, coupled with Gosling’s understated performance, delivers an intimate look at one of America’s space pioneers. Armstrong’s emotional loneliness and suffering is conveyed with a sadness that becomes relatable to everyone.
Chazelle, along with editor Tom Cross, are savvy at making viewers feel like they are sitting right there in the cabin for the test flights. The series of extreme close-up and shaky camera shots would prove annoying in most other films, but here they lend an intense intimacy that will have you holding on to the armrests. The horrific isn’t graphic, but sometimes it’s the simple shots (like Chazelle’s choice to show the launching pad fire that claimed the lives of three astronauts from the exterior of the spacecraft) that provide a visceral impact that’s difficult to shake.
Gosling spends much of the film brooding but he brings his all to the role. The supporting cast (including Jason Clarke as Ed White, Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, and Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton) are equally strong and avoid disappearing into the background. Foy has little to do, but she gets a few teary-eyed grandstanding scenes interspersed with her 60s housewife roles of cleaning up after the men folk and tending to the kids.
The hippie counterculture is briefly showcased in a particularly effective montage set to Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon,” while scenes of protest rallies are interspersed with white men crunching numbers and relaxing in their suburban bubbles.
Much has been criticized about the director’s omission of Aldrin and Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon. While there isn’t a dramatic scene of them doing so, there is a clear shot of the flag that was planted as well as half a dozen other scenes where the stars and stripes are visible. It’s a non-issue as far as I’m concerned. This movie is not anti-patriotic nor anti-American, and to suggest otherwise shows your ignorance.