Armstrong's Journey to the Moon: 'First Man' Review

Updated on November 5, 2018
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Synopsis

First Man takes a look at the Space Race from the perspective of the first man to set foot on the Moon. Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong, who was a test pilot for NASA in the early 1960s. While he focused on earning the qualifications to become an astronaut, he often left his wife Janet (Claire Foy) to take care of the house. Both, though, remained actively involved in the cancer battle their young daughter faced, and eventually lost. After she died, Armstrong became of the men selected by Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), head of NASA's Astronaut Office and one of the Mercury Seven, for mission training on the Gemini launches. As he prepares for his mission call, he continues with various testing and learning to supplement his engineering background. Armstrong's first mission into space comes with Gemini 8, when Armstrong and David Scott (Christopher Abbott) dock with the Agena rocket. The mission ends early when a thruster malfunction causes their craft to spin out of control. Quick thinking by Armstrong keeps the mission from a worse outcome.

Besides the shortened mission of Gemini 8, Armstrong and others get to see other examples of how risky training can be. Between Gemini 8 and Apollo 11, Armstong loses two close friends in fatal training accidents when Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) dies in a crash. Later, Ed White (Jason Clarke) perishes in a blaze aboard a capsule ahead of the first Apollo mission, which ultimately stops all manned missions for nearly two years. Armstrong himself nearly loses his life when he cannot control the craft intended to be one like the one NASA intends to use for a moon landing. As Apollo flights resume, Slayton names Armstrong the commander of Apollo 11, with the serious, but more easy-going, Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) as his pilot and fellow traveler to the Moon. The trio is rounded out by Michael Collins (Lukas Haas), who will orbit as Armstrong and Aldrin go where no other men had ever been. Everyone knows that Armstrong and Aldrin might not successfully leave the Moon, and Janet forces Neil to explain that to their two sons before he leaves on this historic mission.

Evaluation

First Man, based on the book by James Hansen, is a quiet, but exceptional, look at the Space Race. At first, the Soviets led in initial accomplishments, but Apollo gave that edge to the American program. This marks the first film Damien Chazelle has directed since he won an Oscar for his direction of La La Land. He shows Armstrong so focused on success in space, he seems to give his family life too much of a back seat. While Neil does spend time with his children, Janet would like more communication between him and their family to assure them that they matter as much as the missions. Chazelle shows viewers the many phases that go into astronaut training, as well as the tight-knit community the astronauts and their families form in Houston. The detailed writing comes from Josh Singer, who won an Oscar for co-writing the Best Picture winner Spotlight. For a young man who's directed just three films (he debuted with Whiplash in 2014), Chazelle seems like a veteran who has found a mature voice through film. First Man is one of the best films of 2018 to date.

Gosling gives a top-notch performance as Armstrong, who seldom lets his emotions get the better of him. In his line of work, he knows that an emotional reaction could be deadly. Neil is a man who lets his actions do the talking, such as the scene in the beginning of the film, where he has to find a way to stop his X-15 jet from bouncing off the atmosphere and land safely. Though married and a part of the astronaut community, Gosling shows Armstrong to be a bit of a private person, especially in one scene where he'd rather not talk to Ed. Foy, who stars in Netflix's The Crown, matches Gosling's quiet approach with one where she lets the emotions flow. Janet knows Neil's ways, and the reasons behind them. She keeps her husband in line, as well as their kids. Chandler gives another solid supporting performance as Slayton, whose best moment comes when he listens to a drafted letter from his chief, realizes the risks, and responds as if the letter were an ordinary one. Stoll, as Aldrin, is a fine counterbalance to Gosling's Armstrong, and Clarke also impresses as White.

Conclusion

I'm one of those people who can say that I watched Neil Armstrong as he set foot on a place where only eleven other men have followed. Space exploration may seem like a waste of money to some, but some of the technology first used in space has been applied to everyday use. It also expands our knowledge of the universe, as Voyager 1 continues its journey through space in another solar system, transmitting what it sees. First Man takes a look at Armstrong through the 1960s, and shows the qualities NASA deemed necessary to award him the command of one of its most historic missions. Armstrong led in a way that few could. The demands on him were heavy, but the reward was great. As he famously said in his most celebrated moment, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give First Man four stars. A long and thrilling ride.

First Man trailer

© 2018 Pat Mills

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