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First Man – Movie Review

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First Man – Movie Review

Rating: A- (Great)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Universal Pictures

Neil Armstrong stepping foot on the moon remains one of the most remarkable historic events, showing an optimistic desire to explore worlds afar and once thought impossible to reach. First Man certainly has great respect for Armstrong and the team at NASA and Damien Chazelle manages to show their accomplishments and the dangers undertaken with a genuine love for the ingenuity of it. While his previous films were directed with a lot of flash, Chazelle has elected for a less showy approach here and it works. Best of all, the movie feels like a time machine transporting us back to the 1960s.

Chazelle wants the audience to feel like they are inside the test crafts and spaceships and he succeeds at that goal. Those seeing it on IMAX will especially feel the intensity and uncertainty when the astronauts have to place themselves in those tight areas. Shaky-cam can often be an annoyance from movies attempting to evoke a sense of realism. In the case of First Man, it’s a fitting filming technique. The rattling and shaking puts one right in the astronauts’ shoes. Credit should also go to the sound design team who capture every single clank and boom. One senses the many months of work that went into building those contraptions.

However, these sequences aren’t merely for technical show. They say a lot about the people and their nervousness going into every test and ultimately that historical flight to the moon. The scenes at home also work in developing the personalities, both Neil Armstrong’s quiet determination to succeed on these missions and his wife Janet’s never-ending patience. Ryan Gosling plays Neil in an appropriately understated way as he tries to calculate all of the figures in his head. However, it’s Janet who ends up as the more sympathetic figure, both wanting to support her husband and fearing what will likely happen to him when he launches into outer space. Claire Foy definitely nails the complex feelings Janet is going through.

First Man is also a movie about camaraderie and loss. The film doesn’t shy away from showing how many astronauts perished in failed tests and it’s difficult watching those moments. There’s definitely a closeness among them and the effect these deaths have on Neil are well portrayed. There’s also an emotional undercurrent throughout the film when showing Neil grappling with his young daughter’s death. Whether that was a primary motivation for him going up to space is up to the historians to decide, but it never feels like an easy attempt to make the audience cry. Not surprisingly, the famous moon landing scene is a triumph of filmmaking, thanks to the technical wizardry of the visual effects team and Justin Hurwitz chooses the right notes to play in his score.

There have been many movies about space travel and some will probably make the inevitable comparison to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. However, Damien Chazelle manages to make First Man his own and it works as a tribute to Neil Armstrong and what NASA was able to do. The movie does show the bragging rights they sought to have with the Soviet Union, but also the wonder they wanted to inject into the worldwide populace. It’s great to see this mission brought to the screen in a worthy manner. It shows the power of cinema that we can use the technologies of today to bring us, the audience, closer to space travel.


Stefan Ellison

Stefan Ellison