TL;DR – There are times when you will be biting your nails due to the tension, times when you will be in awe, and times when you will be watching the film with tears rolling down your face.
Score – 4.5 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
There are these moments in life that define a generation, they bring everyone together, bonding them in such a way that nothing else can. For my generation, it was September 11, but for my parents, it was the landing on the Moon, and well I know which one I would prefer. They tell the stories of everyone in the street crowding into the house of the one person with a TV and as a community, they watched man’s first steps outside of our planet. While over the years we have got films that have explored around the Apollo Program such as The Dish and Hidden Figures (see review), it is surprising that no one has really tried to take on this particular narrative before. Well after seeing the film I can see why, as it is far from a simple narrative. With this in mind let’s dive into a world where the impossible is made possible.
So to set the scene, we open in on Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), the titular first man, and also our guide through the story as we look at the moon landings through the prism of his life. Right from the start, we see the great highs of scraping the atmosphere while doing tests for NASA, but also the lows of having a child who is sick and there is nothing you can do about it. We have just entered into the Cold War with the Soviet Union and thus we have also entered into the Space Race, which is a problem because the Soviets have beaten the Americans to every major milestone so far, from Sputnik to Yuri Gagarin. So the Americans have set a target to outclass everyone, to land a man on the Moon and bring him back to Earth. With this in mind, NASA puts together the Mercury and Gemini programs to test every facet of the Moon landing and they need people to fly them, and while Neil is still grieving he takes up the challenge.
I have a feeling that this is a film that will divide people because of a couple of artistic decisions that will work for some and not others. The first is the clear design decision that the camera is always moving. Normally the camera is locked on a tripod to keep the frame stable, but here in First Man, I would say that a good 95% of the film it is in constant motion. There are times when that can really frustrate me, but here for whatever reason, the shaky cam was not an issue. I think that part of that stems from those moments where we do get a locked off camera is when Neil is starring at the Moon, so you sort of get the feeling that this is more about demonstrating his state of mind than anything else. As well as this, it allows you to more easily slip into the first-person perspective in places, and prepares you for the rocket launches, though I would also say that if you suffer from motion sickness than this might not be the film for you.
The second issue does relate to a plot point in the film, and even though this is a story based on a real-life event, I do feel the need to put up a [SPOILER] warning for here onwards. One of the first things that happen in the film is that Neil and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) lose their daughter to cancer. This is a deeply emotional moment in the film, but it also does follow a trend in films to kill off a child early in the film to build an immediate emotional connection with the movie that was not earned. For me, First Man does not fall into that category, because first this is a biography so this tragically happened in real life, but also because like other films, such as A Quiet Place (see review) the event becomes a core driver of the emotional force of the film rather than a cheap one-off event.
One of the things the film does very well is charting the full weight of the space program as it built up the first Moon landing through both what is happening in Huston, but also in the strain it places on the families. This was a mission that the best technical minds in the country was focused on, but it was achieving something that many people thought to be impossible. So was it science or was it flying by the seat of your pants when disaster loomed behind every corner? This is shown masterfully in the acting of both Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, who have the weight of the world of their shoulders. It is the little things like, how they shift emotions in their eyes, or how they put up defences in front of the children when life is tearing them apart. The film would not work as well as it does if you didn’t buy both of these as the real people they are referencing, and that is made even more difficult by the fact that these are some of the most famous people in the history of the planet. This can also be said of a fantastic supporting cast that is all willing to give it their all. It is also added to be all the small touches to get it as close as possible to reality. So for example, I have seen footage of Neil ejecting from the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle 1 and the film does an excellent job of recreating it. There is also this theme of the chaos of children that is all throughout the film, which may feel odd until you understand that this is part of Neil’s drive. I can’t tell you if these are accurate portrayals when it comes to history like was Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) really a bit of an ass at times, or indeed how much of the based-on-a-true-story is real rather than fiction. However, I will say it felt authentic, in the ways that mattered, and I will leave it to the people who were there to comment on the accuracy of the portrayal.
As well as this, it also knows how to craft the story, to keep you going through what is quite a long film. This is done by constantly shifting the tone of the film, there are moments of high and low, despair and joy. So for example, the moment Ed (Jason Clarke) mentions that he is going on the Apollo 1 mission you felt this dread seep through the cinema as people realised what that meant and it made those minutes leading up to the tragedy some of the most fraught moments of cinema I have seen in years. It also knew just when to shift things up, for example, there is this moment in the film where I started to wear out a bit from the emotional drain and started to realise that this has been going on for a while. Within a minute of me feeling that we were rocketing to the Moon, and you we sucked back in.
The technical side of the film is also where it shines, and this is where working as a team really helps. In this film we have the same Director, Editor, Cinematographer, and Composer, who have all worked together before, and that bond shows. So for example with the music, there are times when it is a full explosion of orchestral music, there are times when it is giving reference to films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (see review), and still times when it seeps into the background. There are also times when it disappears altogether, and we use the sounds of a rocket launching as the soundtrack to the scene, and I have a feeling there are some Oscar nominations coming for the sound department. The editing feels a bit chaotic at times, jump-cutting all over the place, and while once again I usually find this frustrating, because it was focusing in on the lives of Neil and Janet, it worked because it reflected them, and what they were going through. Add to this, the Moon landing is one of the most culturally relevant moments in human history, and I do not envy the work it must have taken by the set constructors, model builders, special effects artists, as well as this direction and cinematography needed to pull that off, but it was majestic. There were some truly spectacular moments throughout the film, like the dangers that happen in the dark of space, or the shifting colour of a window, or indeed a single spark, and I think they will stay with me for a long time.
In the end, do we recommend First Man? Yes, yes we do. Now, this is not a film for everyone, and if you just had a baby I would highly recommend giving this film a wide berth. However, it emotional captivated me, left me on the edge of my seat in a film I already knew most of the history about before I walked in, and had me sitting in awe of what I was seeing. I do really recommend it, though like me and many of the people I saw the film with you might want to make sure you have some tissues to dab away the tears.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Trailer – Click Here to View (all trailers have heavy spoilers)
Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of First Man
Directed by – Damien Chazelle
Screenplay by – Josh Singer
Based on – First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen
Music by – Justin Hurwitz
Cinematography by – Linus Sandgren
Edited by – Tom Cross
Starring – Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Lukas Haas, Ciarán Hinds, Pablo Schreiber, Patrick Fugit, Shea Whigham, Brian d’Arcy James, Cory Michael Smith, J. D. Evermore, John David Whalen, Ethan Embry, Skyler Bible, Ben Owen, Olivia Hamilton, Kris Swanberg, Shawn Eric, William Gregory Lee & Steven Coulter
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: PG; Germany: 12; New Zealand: M; United Kingdom: 12A;