'First Man' (2018) Movie Review

Updated on December 24, 2018
John Plocar profile image

I strive to be first in line at McDonald's. I fail many times, but I will accomplish my goal being the first to grab a McDouble and Coke.

The First Biopic To Not Make Sense As To Why It Works

I believe that it is safe to say everyone knows the fact of Neil Armstrong Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin were the first men to land on the moon in 1969. Everyone knows those famous words from Armstrong as he took his very first step on the surface of the moon, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Aside from the small group of people that claim Stanley Kubrick rented out a studio to film a fake moon landing as a hoax to appease the masses, no disputes that this was a monumental moment in American History. So basically anyone with a brain doesn’t dispute it.

Now we’ve come to showing that big moment in a biopic, along with how the moon landing was realized by NASA. The puzzling part about First Man to me is that even though I know all of this information, learned about how Armstrong landed on the moon safely throughout years of schooling, this was still some of the most intensely nail biting two and half hours of my entire life. From the clever direction, emotion driven writing, compelling acting, to even the attentive sound design, First Man sucks the viewer right into these events transpiring on the screen. I felt as though I were there sitting next to Neil Armstrong himself as these terrifying scenarios went on; simple experiments and tests on equipment in NASA’s journey of figuring out how to travel to the moon were exceedingly suspenseful. These are obstacles that I know for a fact that Armstrong survives, yet somehow as these sequences play out, I’m on the edge my seat with my heart racing at two hundred miles an hour. There is some brilliant work here.

The Journey

Getting from the conducting of tests by the NASA team to actually landing on the moon is the bulk of this film, at the heart of this story is Neil Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling. We start off the film with one of the most heart pounding opening sequences of this year, Armstrong is conducting a test in an jet to assess what gravity is like outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. What makes this scene so effective, along with many other scenes in the movie, is that the audience sees and hears only as much as the pilot. We are inside this extremely confined space with these characters and they don’t receive a whole lot about their surroundings; they get glimpses of the sky, occasionally the horizon, sometimes utter blackness while winds are roaring and metal is clanking throughout the entire aircraft they’re inside of. We don’t get a lot of visual information about what exactly is happening outside of the cockpit. We don’t know the correlation between the jet or rocket to the ground. We don’t know if all the parts still intact. We don’t know if the machine is bursting into flames when they break through the atmosphere. We are inside with the pilots along for the ride, which is quite horrifying at times because it seems like anything could go wrong and sometimes they do go wrong. There are several tests and experiments that go tremendously wrong, sometimes fatally so, but Armstrong continuously perseveres through all of these tragedies so that man could make that big step on the moon.

First Man even touches on how the American culture at the time in the 1960s were responding to NASA’s seemingly unbreaking determination to reach the moon’s surface, some people being very supportive of the mission while several others questioning if it’s truly worth the cost; both financially and in terms of men being lost. I found that to be a provocative approach to the event that I wasn’t exactly expecting. Most films would be overall supportive of what the program was attempting to do while ignoring the negative backlash it may have encountered, but this film didn’t shy away from the fact that this cost billions of dollars and a number of peoples lives in order to accomplish their goal. I found that to be a rather bold and refreshing take showing that it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows on the behalf of the American people as many called the government out for wasting expensive funds and assets on something that may not even be worth it all. On the other hand, this movie could have hurt the script as a whole in making the audience question the motivations of Neil and his team, but the writing and acting were strong enough to keep me invested in their mission to reach the moon rather than dispute it.

Armstrong

Neil Armstrong
Neil Armstrong

Ryan Gosling is becoming someone that I believe is going to be remembered with some of the greats in film history because his work for the last few years have been truly something to behold. He has such versatility as an actor that I know it will go recognized for many years and he is a major reason why these films will too; his subdued character in Drive, the hilariously physical performance in The Nice Guys, a terrifically layered role in the sci-fi epic Blade Runner 2049, and now here with bringing Neil Armstrong back to life on the big screen. Gosling is great as Neil, portraying a man that has experienced a lot of death in his life and has to restrain himself from letting his emotions get the better of him, especially when it comes to the mission. With a lesser actor in this role he could have come across as wooden and uninteresting, but with Ryan it is apparent in every look in his eye on what’s going on with this character internally. He doesn’t say a whole lot, but you know what he’s thinking and what he’s really feeling with just a look or even how he looks away. The sense of fear that this mission could kill him at any time, even if he survives the trials with this equipment, the actual journey into space to the moon and back could easily kill him if one little thing goes wrong. This is a significant conflict that Armstrong faces on a near daily basis, however the movie doesn’t completely make it all about the mission but also his home life with his family, supplying his character with a good amount of humanity and helping the audience realize what is at stake if something fails. Not to mention charming comradery with the rest of the NASA team, brining more light into Armstrong’s depth of character.

Janet Armstrong
Janet Armstrong

Claire Foy is also amazing as Neil’s wife, Janet Armstrong; this is a terrifically strong female character while still letting her emotions show clearly without much constraint. When she’s happy she’s grinning ear to ear, when she’s sad her eyes well up immensely, when she’s angry and determined then you best hope you’re not in her way. Janet is a strong character to me because she has to handle being a supportive wife to her husband that is in a career that is almost always dangerous, a mother of two young boy’s that she has to prepare them for if anything were to happen to their father, and a woman who has suffered from a terrible loss as well and still must hold her head up to keep her family going. Foy’s performance was the perfect counterbalance to Gosling’s more silent role and the chemistry between the two was extremely sweet, I really bought these two as a tremendously endearing couple together.

Sound Design & Special Effects

Sound design and editing isn’t normally something that I feel worth acknowledgment in my reviews, most films feel as though they gloss over that attention to detail, even the great ones. This is a case where the sound editing is a vital component to why this film works. When inside the cockpit of a jet soaring the skies or a rocket blasting off into outer space, every little piece of metal can be heard rattling around and grinding and clanking together as the ship is bombarded by powerful wind gusts or burning through layers of Earth’s atmosphere. It all feels so overwhelming as we’re thrust right into the action of what’s going on with the aircraft. Then when the men finally make it to the moon and that pod door opens, sucking out all of the air in an instant, there is nothing. Sheer and utter silence. An empty vastness enters our ears as these men first walk the surface of the moon and it is breath taking. The visual effects also are top notch here, I mean gorgeously crafted effects work here because it all looks extraordinarily real. I couldn’t tell for sure what was practical and what was created with CGI, but it was flawlessly interwoven and I tip my hat to the people that made these aspects so astoundingly incredible. All of the cinematography and audio work done here is genius, I was reminded of a lot from the ambition that can be seen in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and I mean that with the best of compliments to the filmmakers here; they brought these chilling action and outer space sequences to life in a way that was awe-inspiring. Space travel felt revitalized in new and innovative ways in this film that I can’t recall seeing much of before, we’ve seen rockets go up into space probably hundreds of times yet somehow in First Man it’s like experiencing it for the first time.

One Of The Best

Damien Chazelle has proven himself to be one of today’s best directors with three masterpieces under his belt at this point; Chazelle made drumming nerve-racking in Whiplash, he brought the golden age of Hollywood musicals back with a original and heart wrenching spin with La La Land, and now making a biopic that the basic story of is common knowledge to the entire world surprisingly blood-curdling and suspenseful in First Man. He is a wildly talented man that I am blown away by every time he has directed a film so far. This was some incredible, 1970’s era styled filmmaking and I absolutely loved the hell out of it. This, like his other two films respectively, easily makes the list of one of the year’s best. The writing and direction were captivating in their execution, the acting gripped me emotionally, and the special effects/sound effects were incredible to experience with making me feel as though I were really living within the moment. I can’t recommend First Man enough, it is something truly worth seeing and I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did.

© 2018 John Plocar

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