Anytime I see a movie about space the technology seems effortless. Even in space disaster movies, the main character is one button or airlock away from safety. The technology and engineering are always #15 on the list of most movies set in space. Even movies like Apollo 13 romanticize space travel to a large degree and gloss over the real work it takes to even get up there. First Man takes a different approach to launch humans into space by making every single aspect of the space program of the 60s be, frankly, terrifying.
Damien Chazelle, fresh off his best Director Award for La La Land, abandons the typical wide shots of CGI rockets traveling through the atmosphere for a very intimate point of view from inside the rocket. The film opens with violent shakes, rattles, loud noises, glimpses of (by 2018 standards) primitive buttons, and close-ups of Neil Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) face. We see quick shots of the wing or underside of the jet that Neil is flying but never go macro in our point of view. This isn’t about the jet. This is about the man inside the jet. So that when he does exit the atmosphere for mere seconds and the sound disappears it is a beautiful close moment of triumph. As Neil struggles to bring his jet back through the atmosphere to Earth the violent shakes return.
Neil is coming back to a loud, violent, and unforgiving planet as a test pilot in the early 60s. He lives with his wife Janet and their son and daughter. His daughter Karen has a brain tumor and when he isn’t flying, Neil spends his time calling doctors and experts for treatment options. It is in these early scenes we see a doting father who will stop at nothing to save her. When she passes a piece of Neil dies too. From that point on he is more distant and work driven as he tries to escape the loss of his daughter. Neil is accepted into the Gemini program with NASA and there we learn the true cost of the space program.
Neil finds himself constantly surrounded by the possibility of death. To call the mission to the moon dangerous would be an understatement. This movie spends the majority of the time on the ground as these men all work together trying to find the least likely way to die in their quest. Chazelle does an incredible job of really showing the labor that went into every single test. This is not a movie that glosses over the failures of the program to give the audience or its characters a triumphant moment. It is work. Dangerous stressful work. Chazelle stages the movie in a way that by the time we reach the moon landing we, as the audience, are in awe of what they accomplished. We spent two hours watching a human loss, poor decisions, and downright laughable technology be implemented as these men signed up to be shot into space. Some of the scenes of the buttons in the cockpit, windows, doors, and interior of the rocket are terrifying. I don’t think I’d feel safe in a go-kart that used the technology they used to launch the rockets in the 1960s. But the direction and writing show the audience all of this in a way that only increases your admiration when it works.
Just as big as the NASA missions are Neil’s home life. Claire Foy plays his wife Janet and just shines in every scene she is in. As someone who never watched The Crown, I haven’t been exposed to her as an actress before but she is tremendous in this role and will surely get a nomination. She is the pillar of the family. Endlessly strong and tough as she deals with the sacrifices of those families around her and the fear of becoming a widow at any moment. Her relationship with Neil is one that is certainly strained due to his dealing with his daughter’s death by pouring himself into work but she never does anything less than support him. The pain and sacrifice he is going through in the air, she is going through at home on the ground and Janet really helps keep this movie grounded in the relationship between her and Neil. The scene where she confronts and forces Neil to address with his sons that he may not come back is just as stressful and riveting as anything that happens in a rocket.
Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, and Ethan Embry round out a very talented cast in this film who all play their roles to perfection. I especially enjoyed that Corey Stoll played Buzz Aldrin as a cocky asshole because there is nothing wrong with being a brilliant, brave, and proud about how good you are at something this serious. While he lacks some tact in situations it always comes back to confidence in himself, which I’d argue these crazy pilots needed.
The Apollo 11 Launch and moon landing are some of the best stuff I have seen on a movie screen this year. I really wish I had seen it in IMAX which the entire moon landing was shot in. Again, Chazelle could have glamorized everything about this launch and landing instead, he kept the event focused and intimate. This wasn’t a movie about the rocket. It is a movie about the men who were in the rocket and we rarely leave their faces or points of view the entire launch and flight. The rattles, shakes, and sounds are deafening as the Apollo 11 takes off and as an audience, we are forced to be right in the cockpit with Neil. Seeing only out the small windows they have, otherwise just holding on for dear life and praying. Even though we know they land safely on the moon it was still stressful to watch the landing. Just great choices all around by the Director. A lot has been made about the actual scene on the moon and I can confirm it is breathtaking and for the purposes of the movie retains its focus on the humans who achieved this, not the act. You’ll feel the emotion when Neil is standing on the moon it is a touching scene. Finally, after running as far away from Earth as he possibly could, Neil is ready to return home to a family who never left him.
Damien Chazelle has created another masterpiece. It is a visceral ride that retains a truly grounded human story that is earned in every single aspect. The entire cast is terrific especially Claire Foy. It is a great portrayal of not just one of the most significant achievements in American history but more importantly a glimpse into the lives and sacrifices of those involved who got us there. I expect we will be seeing multiple deserved award nominations for this movie.