“First Man” is the new film directed by “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle and written by Josh Singer (from a book by James R. Hansen). Chazelle, like the late Robert Wise, is on a varied career trajectory; going from a glitzy, stylized musical to a gritty, realistic story of real-life astronaut Neil Armstrong (1930-2012), the first human being to walk on the surface of the moon.
Armstrong was, by some accounts, a bit of an enigma. He was a quiet, softspoken Ohio native who eschewed the spotlight, and this personality trait of his translated to some as aloofness. He seemed perfectly okay with allowing his more loquacious crewmates, Dr. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins to most of the post-flight publicity chores.
Ryan Gosling, who has played similarly unknowable yet compelling characters in 2011’s “Drive” and 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049″ is a perfect choice to bring the enigmatic Armstrong to life onscreen.
“First Man” covers roughly a decade in Armstrong’s life; from a close call in a high-altitude X-15 aircraft over the California desert in 1962 to his month-long quarantine following his historic lunar flight in July of 1969. In between, we see major events of Armstrong’s life; the tragic death of his three-year old daughter Karen from cancer, his nearly-fatal Gemini 8 spaceflight in 1966, the loss of fellow astronauts in the infamous Apollo 1 launchpad fire, his own near-death in a lunar lander simulator, and his occasionally turbulent relationship with his wife, Jan (Claire Foy).
Foy brings Jan Armstrong to life in a fiery performance. She openly radiates all of the passion hinted at by her tight-lipped husband. Foy’s Jan does a lot of the emotional heavy-lifting of the film.
While the events of Armstrong’s life within the movie’s time parameter are somewhat broadly laid out (overlooking a few significant details), their immediacy is well-captured with gritty and almost documentary-style cinematography (courtesy of Linus Sandgren, who is doing a 180 from his deliberately stylized work in “La La Land”).
Armstrong’s first spaceflight aboard a two-seater Gemini spacecraft is exciting and visceral. The launch of Gemini 8 is seen and felt from the chaotic, bone-shakingly violent perspective of the passenger astronauts. Gauges and instruments are seen as blurs in the cockpit. Relative calm is gained once the spacecraft achieves orbit, as the astronauts practice docking with an unmanned Agena target vehicle.
Most of the scenes in outer space are less about beauty and majesty, and more about the relative claustrophobia and disorientation from the narrow view afforded by the cockpit windows. We do see flawlessly realized external establishing shots that allow the audience to understand what is happening onscreen, but only just enough. Despite that, there is a nice nod to “2001: A Space Odyssey” as we hear a version of Johann Strauss’ “The Blue Danube” playing when the Gemini and Agena slowly dock.
Upon docking, a malfunctioning thruster sends both spacecraft into a rapid, nearly fatal spin. Armstrong does an emergency separation and reentry when attempts to regain control fail. The scene reiterates Armstrong’s almost preternatural calm as he and astronaut Dave Scott (Christopher Abbott) fight to keep from blacking out from the rising G-forces.
If anyone reading this is prone to motion sickness? This scene may not be for you, especially on a larger IMAX-type screen. Just saying.
We also see Jan Armstrong barge into Mission Control, confronting astronaut director Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) when he cuts off her squawk box during the malfunction; the box is a personal radio receiver given to the astronaut’s wives to listen in on missions. Foy gives this scene the bit of hell that it needs.
Over the course of the film, Armstrong develops a close friendship (as much as his personal skills allow) with ill-fated astronaut Ed White (Jason Clarke), the first American to walk in space, who would perish in the infamous Apollo 1 lauchpad fire (along with veteran astronaut commander Virgil “Gus” Grissom (Shea Whigham) and rookie Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith) during a routine ‘plugs-out’ preflight test in January of 1967. The loss of the Apollo One astronauts is devastatingly recreated in the film with as much realism as I never wished to see.
Ed White was the ‘Neil-whisperer’ of the film; someone who could coax the frustratingly enigmatic Armstrong out of his shell a little bit. White was previously seen as the bearer of bad news when he had to tell Neil of the accidental deaths of trainee astronauts Charlie Basset and Elliot See (Patrick Fugit). Now, White and his Apollo 1 crew are the subjects of dreaded calls and knocks at the doors…
The loss of Apollo 1 increases Jan Armstrong’s anxiety level considerably. Now, she has to comfort Pat White (Oliva Hamilton) and her own worried sons as her own husband’s flight looms ever closer. Jan also sits her emotionally distant husband down with his family, and forces him to be honest with them all about the dangers of his upcoming flight.
Shortly before the Apollo 11 flight we see a glimpse of the turbulence of the times, with footage of protests made against the Apollo program. The protestors decrying it as a tremendous waste of vital taxpayer dollars. The song “Whitey’s On The Moon” plays accusingly during the scene. The scene makes a point; not all of the United States was in favor of Apollo at the time, and for understandable reasons. But the point is not belabored. The scene serves as a reminder of the period, as the film moves on.
We now get to the climax of “First Man”; the Apollo 11 mission. Neil, with his sardonic LEM pilot Buzz (Corey Stoll) and command module pilot Michael Collins (Lukas Haas; yes, the little Amish boy from “Witness”) suit up and board the command module atop the massive and imposing Saturn V rocket. The Apollo 11 launch is even more explosive than the Gemini launch. Once again, the audience feels every vibration (especially in Dolby Atmos).
The final descent of the LEM (lunar excursion module) to the lunar surface appears somewhat by-the-numbers in archival footage, but it was actually quite the nail-biter in real life. Overloaded computers triggered multiple alarms on the control panels, as the craft’s descent rocket was running desperately low on fuel. The first landing is close to being a first crash, as Armstrong barely clears a massive crater to a safe landing site. Once the “Eagle” lands, Buzz gives Neil an incredulous look, as Neil says to Mission Control in that preternatural calm, “Houston, uh…Tranquilty base here, the Eagle has landed.”
The first steps onto the moon feel eerily authentic. We hear (or rather feel) the dead quiet of vacuum outside of Armstrong’s spacesuit, with only his own breathing and footsteps sounding inside the suit’s interior.
Some creative license is taken as Armstrong tosses a bracelet belonging to his late daughter into a large crater (this isn’t confirmed by any historical account). While this most likely didn’t happen, it feels emotionally accurate, if not factually so. We know that astronaut Charles Duke left a photo of his family on the lunar surface during Apollo 16, so it’s not inconceivable that Armstrong may have done something like this (or wished that he had). After a couple of hours on the surface, Armstrong and Aldrin lift-off and rendezvous with Collins aboard the Columbia for the flight home.
Final scenes of the film show the men during their month-long enforced quarantine upon return. Fears of lunar ‘contamination’ were only later unfounded. Neil, as emotionally enigmatic as ever, sees Jan through the pane of glass. Wordlessly, the two connect. The ‘first man’ is nearly home.
The man behind the First Man.
The titular ‘first man’ may have been a lot more outwardly stoic than other astronauts depicted in recent spaceflight films (such as Matt Damon in “The Martian” or Sandra Bullock in “Gravity”), but still waters run deep. It’s suggested that the death of his daughter early in the film is what closed off Neil’s emotions. This emotional disconnect would be further exacerbated by the deaths of his astronaut friends as well.
Given his experience playing such pokerfaced characters, Gosling tends to do less outward emoting; allowing the audience to find their own interpretations of his characters. In that way, he’s both audience avatar and mirror. It’s an interesting ability unique to this actor. His performances are never boring, and his interpretation of Neil Armstrong is no exception.
The flag ‘controversy.’
Currently there is a minor (very minor) ‘controversy’ floating around both Washington D.C. and on the internet concerning the movie’s lack of a flag-planting ceremony scene. Let me be clear on this: We do see the US flag on the moon in the film. Therefore we can safely assume that it was put there by the two astronauts. For that matter, we also don’t see Buzz taking a leak inside of his spacesuit as he descended from the LEM’s ladder onto the lunar surface. Dr. Aldrin mentioned that bit of business at a Planetary Society event I attended nine years ago in Pasadena. He also mentioned that the flag itself was blown down by the ascent stage of the LEM as the crew blasted off from the lunar surface (it was unwittingly placed too close to the ascent stage liftoff rocket).
Due to the intense brightness of unfiltered solar radiation on the lunar surface, the flag is now bleached white instead of red, white and blue. So that flag is now a white piece of rectangular cloth, lying in lunar dust.
The movie has a two-hour and 21 minute running time and covers nearly ten years, and some events (even important ones) are going to get cut. These aren’t deliberate coverups nor are they anti-American conspiracies; they’re simple editorial omissions and nothing more.
Up until “First Man,” the previous cinematic benchmark for spaceflight realism in cinema was Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” (1995), which used actual NASA training aircraft (the KC-135 ‘vomit comet’) to capture brief scenes of free-fall zero gravity within the Apollo spacecraft sets. The sets were flown aboard the plane to capture those few fleeting moments, which added greatly to the movie’s realism and scope.
“First Man” raises the realism bar even higher, and without the use of vomit comets. Rather than going wide and big, “First Man” goes intimate and immersive. You truly feel every moment of the spaceflight scenes.
This is a film that simply begs to be seen on a big screen; seeing it on anything less is shortchanging yourself of the experience. Yes, the sounds and shaking during the launches are brutal, but it adds to the realism. Not since Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” (2013) have we seen a movie convey the potentially bone-shattering violence of manned spaceflight. As another review put it, this is NASA’s “Saving Private Ryan.”
“First Man” is as much a first-person NASA spaceflight simulator as it is a movie. The film delivers the experience of spaceflight with as much realism and intimacy as is possible within the medium of motion pictures.
I half-expected to get my astronaut wings as I left the theatre…