Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” opens on a dark, cramped cockpit shaking viciously while piloted by Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong. His eyes are filled with fear and panic until the cockpit is suddenly illuminated by the sunlight reflecting off the Earth’s horizon in the upper echelons of the atmosphere. Relief, followed by astonishment, washes over his face as he hovers in the vast beauty of space. He then begins to plummet and the fear returns.
All of this terror, beauty and astonishment carries throughout the rest of the film. These feelings soon lead to an unforgettable, visceral and dazzling experience.
The eight years of trials and tribulations Armstrong had to endure before the Apollo 11 mission that made him an American hero is the fulcrum of “First Man.” While this characterizes the basic synopsis, there is so much more to the film regarding the man inside the spacesuit.
Armstrong’s complexity is mesmerizing. All the insecurities, fears and determination he experienced is felt through Gosling’s stoic performance. His subtle changes of demeanor throughout the film with every loss he experiences add a sense of weight and suspense to an outcome everyone is aware of.
Gosling’s moments of vulnerability are incredibly believable as well. His quivering lip and fight to hold back tears in moments of distress help show why Armstrong is considered a hero today — he was just a man who had to overcome many obstacles.
He did not overcome these obstacles alone, however. His wife, Janet Armstrong, is masterfully portrayed by Claire Foy. She brings a fiery intensity which encapsulates Janet’s concerns for their family while also trying to support all his endeavors to the best of her ability. Scenes of her nervously sitting hunched over the radio during the Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 missions while also tending to the children’s needs gives the audience an authentic look at how important she truly was to her family.
While all these performances help depict the scale of this arduous journey, the directorial work by the Academy Award-winning Chazelle puts you directly in Armstrong’s shoes. When Gosling approaches the Gemini 8 shuttle, the corridor shakes and hanging lights sway, ramping up the intensity and puting the viewer in his perspective, experiencing his fear.
Chazelle’s constant implementation of close-up shots also allows the audience to notice every expression the actors bring, creating a deeper connection to this true story.
A cornerstone of this film, of course, is the interstellar aspects — specifically outer space and the moon. Created using using computer-generated imagery, these aspects made for some breathtaking moments. The vast empty space surrounding the shuttle in certain scenes brings a strange beauty to the serene void confirming why Armstrong and many others were allured by the mission. The recreation of the moon is incredibly realistic as well, making the scenes on the lunar surface feel tangible.
All of these emotionally impactful scenes are supported by a beautiful score that at times seemed whimsical, and at others suspenseful. This makes the danger of the journey feel incredibly real while making the payoffs feel magical.
“First Man” combines a variety of filmmaking aspects to create one of the greatest depictions of Armstrong and his mindset during his times at NASA while also creating an unforgettable experience that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible.