Review: “First Man” Intense and Emotional

I’ve always been fascinated by the Apollo 11 Mission to the moon, maybe because I wasn’t born yet. I’ve watched the news reels and experienced the aftermath, watched while cuts have been made to the space program. I loved the idea of a movie exploring Neil Armstrong’s experience of the race to the moon and was even more excited with the actors taking part. After seeing it, I can say it was emotional, impactful and had superb acting.

The film, a biographical drama directed by Damien Chazelle and written by Josh Singer, is based on the book, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen. The movie relates the story leading to Neil’s fateful mission to the moon but begins with his X-15 flight into atmosphere during the time his daughter Karen is dying of cancer. Neil (Ryan Gosling) is both a pilot and an engineer, a quiet, intelligent man but the death of his daughter weighs on him, his wife Janet (Clare Foy) and his family. He chooses to head to NASA to begin a fresh start. Tying the beginning of his career with NASA with his daughter’s death illustrates how personal his choices were and how each event in the next few years leads him to his eventful journey to the moon.

This is a deeply personal intense view, focused on Neil Armstrong and his time prior to the fateful flight. It also focuses on his friendships and his family, illustrating how they impacted him. The film follows Neil as he interviews for the NASA program meeting Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) Chief of the Astronaut Office, Christopher C. Kraft Jr (J.D. Evermore) NASA’s first Flight Director and Robert Gilruth (Ciaran Hinds) first director of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center. It also shows him interacting with and his friendships among the other Gemini pilots and engineers, such as Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), David Scott (Christopher Abbott), and Ed White (Jason Clarke). Meanwhile, his wife Janet meets Pat White (Olivia Hamilton) and the families of the pilots bond. Over time, we are shown the beginning of the program, the successes both of Neil and other astronauts. We meet Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber). We also see the losses, the cost of the program and the protests against it during a difficult time in America’s history. We see how losses of his friends impact Neil and how it pushes this intelligent, deeply emotional man to achieve the impossible.

One of the reasons I liked this movie so much is that it is deeply personal. It focuses on Neil Armstrong, it focuses on his wife and family as much as on him and it gives us a deeper, more intimate view of this very quiet, reflective man who didn’t talk much about his life or feel the need to brag about his accomplishments. For him, his reasons for becoming an astronaut were about changing people’s perspectives, getting people to see things from a different view. We feel the emotional weight of his daughter Karen’s death on him and we see how losing his friends impacts him. I love the relationship between him and Janet, how respectful and caring it is. And the scenes with him playing with his sons are some of the most beautiful in the film.

Another aspect that has made this such a strong film is Janet’s portrayal by Clare Foy. Janet is shown as a strong woman who holds her family together in the absence of her husband. While she struggles at times, she is not afraid to show her voice and I felt she was shown to be as respected as Neil, helping the other families and being there for Neil as much as she could. Their relationship is shown as equals, partners, even with the loss of a child and that brings a beauty to this movie.

The movie takes place over a few years, as we see Gemini flights and the cost in men and money over time. We see the building of the equipment, how each trip is just a little more advanced and Neil’s role in the space program. While they don’t touch too much on the technical aspects, we do see some of the failures and some of the successes as well. It is a gritty, realistic approach, illustrating that there were losses and how Neil dealt with losing friends. I don’t think it would have been nearly as impactful or intense without these scenes.

What truly propels this film over the top is the acting. Ryan Gosling brings just the right touch of quiet dignity and emotionality without being over the top. He plays Neil Armstrong as quiet but with a sense of humor, as a family man with deep feelings and as a man who cared intensely about his role in the space program, in helping us make it to the moon. Hearing him speak Neil’s words as the journey ends brought goosebumps to me. But it is not solely Ryan Gosling who deserves praise.

Clare Foy is equally dynamic as Janet Armstrong, strong, fierce and stubborn. Supportive but also willing to speak up as needed. Clare is emotional and compelling in the role and the chemistry she and Ryan bring to the relationship is just perfect, loving and beautiful.

Every actor in this film is superb, each shining in their roles. While we don’t get the same emotionality from the Ciaran Hinds and Kyle Chandler, it is important to remember they were not the men risking their lives and that the film is focuses on Neil. They do an incredible job with their parts as do the actors playing the pilots, Jason Clarke as Ed White, Patrick Fugit as Elliot See, Christopher Abott as David Scott, Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin and Pablo Schreiber as Jim Lovell. I am sure there are names I am forgetting but they all did credit to this film.

The only true negative I have is that the film is long. While this lends to the authenticity and helps build to the impact of the landing on the moon, it might make for a more difficult film to sit through. I felt that the director did an excellent job of maintaining tension throughout and each connection is important to the overall story.

If you want to learn more about Neil Armstrong, this film is authentic and truthful in its view of the man. If you want to know more about the space program, it will fill in some of those facts but overall, it is an emotional drama focused on Neil Armstrong and the choices that led him to the moon. It shows how the death of his daughter catapulted him to a different path and how the losses in the program focused him on his mission. This movie was beautiful, honest, and emotional. I was in tears toward the end. I highly recommend it and found it incredible.

Rating: 4.5 rockets out of 5.

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