Neil Armstrong’s famed words as he first set foot on the moon have resounded throughout history. Nearly 50 years later, there’s still a power to the phrase, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” In First Man, audiences experience that momentous step up close, seeing Armstrong’s perspective and getting the chance to grasp how giant the symbolic leap was.
Like Titanic or Sully, First Man tells the story of a historic voyage in which the ultimate outcome is expected to be known by most viewers: Armstrong steps on the moon and makes it home safely. But what director Damien Chazelle’s latest film turns its focus on is Armstrong himself.
Taking place in the 1960s, the film is so centered on the astronaut that it doesn’t even show the planting of the U.S. flag — an action turned into controversy by Marco Rubio, who likely hadn’t seen the film at the time.
First Man tells the story of how Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, came to take his small step, with Claire Foy playing his wife, Janet Armstrong, who is trying to handle being stuck on Earth without her husband — whether he’s in space or at home.
Gosling portrays Neil as a reserved, quiet guy. Early in the movie, the protagonist goes through a personal tragedy, and his quiet, solitary reaction frames his character for the rest of the film. He’s not a man of many words.
The entire opening sequence, in which Neil flies an X-15 that is crashing down to Earth, goes by without the then-pilot saying a single word. The scene is intense, shaky and loud, but Neil sits, quietly calculating and aiming for a soft landing.
The rest of the film is far from quiet. In key sequences of launches and flights, the sound roars and the scenes shake. In these sequences, shot by cinematographer Linus Sandgren on 16mm film, the grainy visuals turn into streaks across the screen. Ai-Ling Lee’s sound design has the ships rattling all around, emphasizing the perceived fragility of a pilot’s or astronaut’s surroundings. Justin Hurwitz’s soundtrack fits the era and movie’s intensity as it plays at a high volume.
The sequences are loud and shaky enough to become incomprehensible. The camerawork is restricted, showing the inside of the vessel, some views from mountings right outside and first-person perspective. The viewer is stuck inside the vessel and the film assaults every sense it can — one can only imagine the nausea-inducing ride of seeing First Man in the seat-moving 4DX format.
This is not a film for the faint of heart. There are dangers of feeling claustrophobic or overwhelmed in the multiple intense sequences.
First Man is certainly a film of spectacle even though it tells a smaller story. The narrative of Neil’s life is endearing and the relationships between astronaut families are interesting to watch, but the film is built for its big moments. The flights and launches are where these moments take precedence, but the lunar sequence is also an expression of the search for size.
The lunar module lands on the moon, the hatch opens up, the camera goes through and, in theaters with IMAX’s laser projection system, the screen suddenly fills up. The moon becomes massive and the sound goes vacuum-silent. The most significant moment is not when Neil says his historic line; it’s when he picks up his boot and sees the first human footprint on the moon. Amazingly, when the visuals are the biggest, the significant moments are those which are the smallest.
Back home, Janet’s role is nothing huge. Foy makes the most of the small part written for her in Josh Singer’s screenplay with her emotional output. True, she’s more than a shrew who doesn’t want their husband to do the thing he wants to do, and, true, it is Neil’s story, but that doesn’t excuse an underwritten character with little to do other than think about her husband, talk about her husband and talk about other astronaut husbands.
First Man, Chazelle’s first feature film not to center around music, is a good film that is powerful in its intense moments and caring in its smaller ones. After any sequence in which Neil flies through air or space, viewers may need to take a deep breath — the intensity of the film can still be felt after leaving the theater.
The film may not bear viewing more than once, nor even after it leaves theaters. But for now, as it plays big, it’s a visceral experience worthy of being seen.
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