Film Review: First Man

This film is a dramatic account of the first landing of men on the surface of the moon. It was written by Josh Singer and directed by Damien Chazelle (La La Land). Singer has experience writing stories based on actual events, including the excellent film about the Catholic sex-abuse scandal, “Spotlight”. He makes some interesting choices in First Man, most notable being his juxtaposition, about three-quarters of the way through, of the NASA story against the backdrop of social turbulence in the late 1960’s. The rest of the screenplay is tightly focused on the people involved in the space program, especially astronaut Neil Armstrong.

There seems to be an intentional effort at realism, both in the the writing and directing. That means there is a lot of technical jargon and details that sailed over my head, with scant effort made at exposition. This is not a criticism of the film makers. If they’d tried that they would’ve ended up with something more akin to “The Martian.” It’s just a built-in problem with the subject matter. Where they succeeded is in immersing the audience in the terrifying, death-defying experiences of the astronauts, starting with a harrowing sequence at the beginning of the film that has Armstrong bouncing off the Earth’s atmosphere during a test flight. For me, the takeaway is that these early space pioneers were more than a bit crazy. In all of the launch and flight sequences, the vessels they inhabit appear like they’re about to come apart at the seams. The truth is, several astronauts died getting the program up and running. And a central point of the film is that the success of the moon landing, given all of the problems and deadly sacrifices that proceeded it, was more than a minor miracle.

The effort at realism also intruded into the direction of the film’s star, Ryan Gosling, in the role of Neil Armstrong. While I’m sure that Chazelle and Gosling did their level best to portray Armstrong accurately, the result is a repressed performance lacking in opportunities for emotion most of the time, with the exception of a key scene near the beginning involving a personal tragedy, and a beautiful, poignant coda near the end. Thank goodness for the performance of Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife, Janet, who steals the show in many respects, including the emotional pivot-point of the film, during which she chides Armstrong for his reluctance to address his possible demise with his children as he prepares to head for launch.

I thought this was a powerful film and a must see for anyone young enough to have not been born, or to have no recollection of, the first moon landing. It works slightly less well as pure entertainment. One more thing: some people have made a big deal of the fact that the film doesn’t include the planting of the American flag on the moon. Speaking only for myself, that would not have occurred to me as a problem if others had not brought it up. The film is about people; about pioneers; about sacrifices, and that what they did back in the day transcends boundaries and, in so doing, speaks to humanity.

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