This weekend saw the release of First Man directed by Damien Chazelle (La La Land), written by Josh Singer (The Post), and starring Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner 2049) and Claire Foy (The Crown) as Neil and Janet Armstrong. The film follows the life of Neil Armstrong during the ten years leading up to the first landing on the moon.
First Man is an amazing movie. Chazelle has proven once again that he has an immense amount of talent as a director and can craft a story that works on every level. There are some amazing visual moments in the film that have nothing to do with rockets or space travel, but show life as a human on earth. There’s a great flow to the story and balance to all its parts. The film never plays into tropes that would be easy to fall into in a situation like this. It all feels real on every level, and that honesty to the story and the characters helps to pull you in and keep you invested throughout.
The film begins with the death of the Armstrong’s two-year-old daughter Karen, as she loses her battle with cancer. From there the film paints a portrait of a man who slowly seems to detach himself from the rest of humanity as he makes the greatest “leap for mankind.” Death looms over their lives as Neil and Janet try to work past their daughter’s death, and Neil sees most of his close friends and co-workers die in failed experiments and launches. With most stories like this, you would expect the emotional climax of the film to be Neil crying and having a sort of cathartic emotional moment, but the film begins with him in tears after his daughter’s funeral. From there, we see Neil constantly concealing himself and his feelings as time goes on.
The movie would be difficult to watch if not for the performance of Foy as Janet. Gosling does a spectacular job as Neil, but the demands of the role aren’t much of a stretch for what we’ve seen him do in the past. Claire Foy commands the screen and is able to give a performance that makes you want to keep watching. We all know that Neil Armstrong made it to the moon, and that he was the “First Man” to step foot on the moon, but we don’t know what happened to Neil and Janet. Their story isn’t ingrained in our culture and our history. We spend the entire film rooting for Janet; we pray that things get better for her, that Neil will open up to her, and that together they can move forward in the way they need to.
The film never looks down on Janet either. She’s never a victim or a weak woman. She’s just as strong as Neil, and if anything, she’s the stronger of the two. She’s the one who can have a deep, life-changing, emotional moment and then turn around and put a smile on for her kids. The plot of First Man may center on Neil becoming the first man to walk on the moon and the wins and insurmountable losses he faces in that time, but this movie truly belongs to Janet and Claire Foy. If not for her performance, the film would mean nothing.
First Man probably isn’t going to be the film you expect it to be. It’s not about the explosive moments or the challenges of the technology and science behind space travel. It’s about life as a living, breathing, feeling, human being and trying to find a way to still keep moving forward when you constantly lose everyone you hold dear. There are some exciting and explosive moments in the film due to the nature of this story, but they’re not what’s most important.
Buzz Aldrin, played by Corey Stoll (House of Cards), is sort of Chazelle and Singer’s way of telling the audience that the explosive stuff doesn’t matter. Every time he appears on screen before the actual moon landing sequence, he’s bombastic and saying things that would fit perfectly in another film, but Neil and other characters constantly bring him down. At the funeral of a fallen astronaut, Buzz tries to talk about the reason he died, but Neil states that it doesn’t matter what they think. They weren’t there, and their friend is now dead. That’s all that matters – and Neil is right.
We don’t remember the details of how a spacecraft landed or what small calculations played into it. We don’t know that there was a wiring issue here or there that led to a fire. We don’t know that there was an issue with thrusters not being controlled individually. The big thing that lingers on as we move forward is the fact that these events happened. People died. Spacecrafts crashed. But we kept moving forward. Somehow, amidst all the chaos and death, these people found a way to keep going and to be stronger than their pain and achieve things no other human being had ever accomplished. That’s the story of First Man, and it’s a damn good one.
First Man is currently playing in theaters nationwide.