FIRST MAN tells the trials and triumphs of astronaut Neil Armstrong as he trains, tests and finally lands on the moon. The film is written by Oscar winner Josh Singer (SPOTLIGHT) adapted from James. R. Hansen’s book with cinematography by Linus Sandgren whose visuals are the best thing about the movie. It is best seen in IMAX, as the screen jolts during the segment of the moon landing, as if to remind the audience of the glorious IMAX format.
The film opens with Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) in the cockpit of a rocket as it tries to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere. It has troubles as it is bouncing off the atmosphere with altitude rising instead of decreeing. The ship rattles like crazy. It is a long 15-minute or so sequence with screeching metal and jittery frames, enough to give anyone a headache. It is clear that director Chazelle wants the audience to realize the absolute torture that the astronauts endure, which he repeats more than once again during his film. Subtlety is clearly not Chazelle’s strong point. Chazelle loves to inflict torture on his subjects like in Armstrong as in Miles Teller’s drummer in WHIPLASH and career bound musician Ryan Gosling in LA LA LAND – two of Chazelle’s previous outings.
The film unfolds during the period of 1961 to 1969, ending with the success of the moon landing and of course Armstrong’s famous words: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But the euphoria is again diminished by Chazelle insisting on reminding the audience (though flashback) that Armstrong lost his little girl, Karen through cancer.
FIRST MAN is extremely choppy in its storytelling. It requires that titles onscreen to tell the audience the year a segment is set and and what point NASA is at in its testing. There are scenes that are disorienting that the audience is left for a while not knowing where the film is at. An example is the wife Janet (Claire Foy) distraught at her husband’s survival followed by a scene when all is well.
Chazelle’s film and Singer’s script capture both the intimacy of Armstrong’s family life and camaraderie of his fellow astronauts more effectively. The confrontation between Janet and Neil where she loses it, forcing her husband to talk to the boys makes one of the film’s best segments as in the astronauts beer drinking segment. The choice of the musical score and the songs chosen by the astronauts to play in space is also interesting,
FIRST MAN is Chazelle’s biggest project and it looks superb not only for the moon segments but the ones on earth. No expense has been spared to provide the 60’s atmosphere from the vintage cars, clothing, wardrobe and 60’s dialogue.
FIRST MAN is visually more arresting than most space movies, excepting Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. But Philip Kaufman’s THE RIGHT STUFF remains the best space movie about astronauts and their families. A little lengthy at 2 hours and 20 minutes, FIRST MAN is a solid experience demonstrating what Armstrong went through for success but unlike the other two aforementioned films, seeing FIRST MAN once is more than enough.