'First Man' review: The space race comes to life

First Man

Comes to life in a very personal way, that is.

Space can be scary. Alien, Gravity and Interstellar all taught us that, among many others. Do you know what might be even scarier than space, though? Trying to actually get to space in the first place.

That’s what First Man, a new film from Whiplash and La La Land (two of the better movies from the past decade) director Damien Chazelle, depicts as it tells the story of Neil Armstrong and his journey to the moon.

Now, everyone thinks of Armstrong as a hero who managed to pull off this great achievement that forever changed the history of the world.

In the 1970’s, however, that wasn’t necessarily the case. There were a lot of mixed emotions towards NASA’s space programs and a whole lot of fear regarding whether or not the technology they were working with would actually hold.

First Man
credit: YouTube

We see this depicted in the opening scene of First Man, as Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is headed into space in what’s basically the equivalent of a refrigerator. There’s only about six-inches between him and space, meaning one small mistake could mean could, instant death.

And mistakes do happen, both during this opening scene and throughout the course of the rest of the movie. Getting to space might seem like a pretty easy task now, but nobody really thought Armstrong was coming home at the time.

Which, obviously, takes a pretty heavy mental toll on a person.

Armstrong isn’t one to exactly show a whole lot of emotion. He’s much more the quiet, stoic type who keeps his thoughts to himself while he’s really analyzing the entire room.

First Man
credit: YouTube

So, when Armstrong’s daughter Karen (Lucy Stafford) passes away at a very young age, it’s Neil’s wife Janet (Claire Foy) who has to try and explain it to their two sons, Rick (Luke Winters) and Mark (Connor Blodgett).

That’s what really leads Neil to NASA in the first place. He’s not trying to get to the moon because he wants to be this national hero or anything like that, he’s simply trying to run away from some of the things in his past.

That all leads to an emotional, incredibly well-realized climax that had me in tears, as First Man is a much more personal film than I thought it was going to be.

Which, really, is what I admire about this movie. It would have been easy for Damien Chazelle to essentially create a huge blockbuster here that really dives into the space race in the same vein as Apollo 13 (still a good movie, but very different from this).

First Man
credit: YouTube

He takes a different approach, though — an approach that dives into who Neil was as a person and how his crazy, almost suicidal, tendencies had an effect on the people around him.

That’s not necessarily an easy thing to portray when your main character is one who doesn’t really say a whole lot or even show much facial emotion, leading some to criticize First Man for being slowly-paced and dull. I think it works, however, as this is a very subtle, carefully calculated feature that is able to say a whole lot in its silence.

Part of that is due to the performance of Ryan Gosling, for sure, but a big part of that is also due to Claire Foy. Since Armstrong doesn’t really talk a whole lot in the movie, it’s on Foy’s shoulders to provide the emotional weight of First Man. If he had his way, Neil would simply leave for the moon without telling anyone, and if he died up there, that would be that. She’s the one who starts calling him out on this and makes him sit down with his boys, explaining the choices he made and why he might not be coming home.

First Man
credit: YouTube

That’s some pretty heavy stuff to get through, but Chazelle is able to balance it out all really well so the emotional moments hit just when they need to.

While Armstrong is the focus of this film, there are some other astronauts in here too that deserve a shout-out, as everyone is really well acted. Obviously, you have Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Mike Collins (Lukas Haas), but Edward Higgins White (Jason Clarke), Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber) and Robert Gilruth (Ciaran Hinds) all played vital roles in the Apollo 11 mission as well.

On more of a surface level, I found myself fascinated with the story itself in First Man and just how risky getting to the moon was. The feeling of dread that characters have whenever they enter a spacecraft is so powerful, as you never know what could go wrong or who’s going to make it out alive. One second, Neil Armstrong will be sitting at the dinner table with his family, and the next second he’ll get a phone call telling him that his best friend just died and that the funeral is in two days.

First Man
credit: YouTube

I’m also just kind of in love with the way that First Man was filmed. The space sequences on the moon are all breathtaking in themselves, but the way that Chazelle films everything in an in-your-face panicked kind of way is incredibly effective, too. First Man is also made in a way where it’s meant to look like home-videos from the 1970’s, which then really taps into a kind of nostalgia that I haven’t seen done before on the big screen.

There’s a lot to love about First Man. The runtime may be a bit long, as some moments could have easily been trimmed out, but there’s still a lot done right here. It’s a really unique, almost risky, way to tell the story of the first moon landing, but it’s one that I think ultimately paid off. You’re going to see First Man gets all kinds of awards consideration this year (I’d say Foy is the current front-runner to win Best Supporting Actress), and it’s all very well deserved.

Check out the trailer for First Man here and then let us know, in the comments below, what you thought about the movie!

'First Man' review: The space race comes to life
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Brandon Schreur

The fella over there with the hella good hair. Movies and TV are my jam, and the fact that I get to write about them on a regular basis is the bees knees.

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