Movie Review: First Man (Universal)

SPOILERS The Space Program has always been important to me. I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t a part of my childhood household. My father worked for an Aerospace […]

SPOILERS

The Space Program has always been important to me. I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t a part of my childhood household.

My father worked for an Aerospace Company and eventually, we even moved to Florida to be closer to the Space Coast. The first Space Shuttle launched on my 10th Birthday, which was the best present ever. I wore a jacket covered in Shuttle Mission patches. In grade school, the teachers would all take the students outside to see the shuttle launching in the far distance. I even saw the Challenger Disaster with my own two eyes, running outside after seeing it live on television on a sick day home from school. The 1983 film The Right Stuff was a very important film to me as it brought to life the history of the Space Race that I had studied so much. Seeing John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and the rest of the Mercury 7 astronauts made the history come alive even more for me. Later, this feeling would continue in 1995 with the release of Apollo 13. This film was much more cinematic than the Right Stuff, which felt like a documentary at times then a visual blockbuster which Apollo 13 was. If there was only some in between film that could not only blend the two styles of those films but also fill in the blanks of our first attempts to put a man into space and then taking him to the moon. If only…

First Man is a beautifully shot and performed film focusing on a man from history whose name will be known for generations to come: Neil Armstrong. To contrast the performances of John Glenn in The Right Stuff (portrayed by Ed Harris of Westworld, The Truman Show) and Apollo 13’s Jim Lovell (Sully, Catch Me If You Can’s Tom Hanks as that mission’s commander), Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner 2049, Drive) as Armstrong is a man with deep human flaws. At the time, he’s so focused on his work that the engineer in him takes over and his family is left out of the equation of his life. Armstrong’s emotional rock of a wife Janet, played by Claire Foy of The Crown, is the counterbalance that Neil needs to be brought back from the land of calculations to be the husband and father he needs to be. An early tragedy in the Armstrong family set Neil’s tone for his driven ways: the loss of their daughter to cancer. Neil is haunted by the loss and admits to a board of Nasa officials how could her death not affect his judgments? Her memory is what drives Neil forward and pushes through setback after setback. The Space Race leading up to the Apollo 11 moon landing is not without its losses. Astronauts lost their lives in flights and tests while making the path to the moon. Janet Armstrong is well aware of this and keeps pushing Neil to acknowledge his love for his family which is there but is shadowed by his daughter’s death.

Ryan Gosling’s stoic nature is a perfect fit for this portrayal of Neil Armstrong. Tears may be running down his face, but you see Gosling holding together the composure of this historic figure. Gosling perfectly portrays an Engineer trying to balance a career filled with tragedy with his family life overshadowed by the loss of his baby girl.

As Neil’s long-suffering wife, Claire Foy brings forth a performance filled with depth. As a mother, she protects her children from witnessing her losses of composure. Foy brings a lot of emotional range to a character that could have easily been secondary to the story. She is not the wife behind the man, but rather the woman beside him. I wouldn’t be surprised to see if Foy is nominated for her multi-layered performance.

The supporting cast is made up of Kyle Chandler (The Wolf of Wall Street, Friday Night Lights) as Program Manager Deke Slayton plays well the man tasked with making the tough decisions of who may live or die on the moon. Deke is actually one of the characters that you will see in both the aforementioned The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 (played by different actor each time, of course). The story does not leave out the history, as a few moments known to me as an amateur NASA buff. Gus Grissom is expertly played by Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire) as the top astronaut expected to be the first man on the moon until the Apollo 1 fire took his life. The second man on the Moon was Buzz Aldrin is given a very frank portrayal by Cory Stoll (Ant-Man, Girls). Aldrin is just as driven as Armstrong, but his too honest opinions distance him at times from his fellow astronauts. Stoll brings this out well and then counterbalances it with being a much more press-friendly character the Armstrong during a press conference scene.

Not to be forgotten about this film is the special effects, both audio and visual. In an age of GoPros strapped to helmets, we are brought inside the many capsules and spacecraft from a first-hand perspective. You see and hear what being atop a giant Titan II rocket as it blasts off, with shakes and shutters that make you wonder if this thing is ready for human testing. The visuals are beautiful, showing the spacecraft in a very realistic way. At moments, I was even reminded of the movie classic 2001. That is a huge compliment. One of the recurring themes to the effects I loved was how the camera would not cut away to a beauty shot of two spacecraft docking or a cinematic exterior shot of the Eagle Lunar Lander touching down. Often you were inside the cockpit with the astronauts, if not seeing what they saw from a first-hand perspective! An Academy Award-winning visual and audio experience awaits you, especially if you can see it in IMAX like I was able to.

First Man is a beautiful tale of the man, not the historic figure, who overcame the deep emotional blows that life dealt to him to rise up to succeed in his goal in the name of a lost loved one. Highly Recommended.

First Man in theaters this Friday, October 12.

About Bobby Sussman

Bobby Sussman is a Sci-Fi fan who lives in Los Angeles. When not doing his day job of IT, Bobby can be found collecting movie memorabilia, frequenting Disneyland, or pondering the true meaning of the ending of Avengers: Infinity War. Bobby is a cat owner and asks you to not hold that against him.