“We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon…We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” – President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962
Damien Chazelle’s FIRST MAN is a grueling, and realistic look at the effects of heroism and the pressure that it places on those who choose to do it, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
We have all seen the fantastic imagery of Neil Armstrong and heard his echoing words as he took one small step for man and was the first human to set foot on the surface of the moon. We recognize his contributions from history, but for the first time, we understand what it took and how much it cost him.
The film opens during a test of the X-15 rocket. From the opening sequence, this film places you right in the cockpit and in the pressure cooker. The situation becomes dire as Neil’s craft bounces off the atmosphere upon re-entry. It is intense. After a rocky landing, one of Neil’s test buddies asks him if “he’s okay”? Without hesitation, climbing out of a downed, and smoking fuselage, Neil responds with a simple “Yeah.”
Neil is a man who has to be in control when braving the elements. Rarely does Armstrong let the situation dictate his emotions, instead he holds those feelings in and keeps moving forward. The flip side is that in his personal life, he tries to keep that same control, and that’s when we see the cracks begin to appear.
From there we get a glimpse into events that will haunt Neil. His young daughter is terminally ill, and it is a situation that he can’t control. He lets an opportunity with NASA pass to be with his Family. When his daughter passes, Neil takes the next chance and becomes part of the historic Gemini missions and then the Apollo missions, that ultimately leads to several missions including the eventual moon landing.
Damien Chazelle’s (La La Land, Whiplash) direction along with Cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s camerawork (La La Land, American Hustle) and Tom Cross’ editing (The Greatest Showman), puts you right into the chaos and the unknown of the experience, when any second an alarm can sound, and you are tumbling wildly out of control. Other films have indeed hinted at the danger of early space exploration, but this one really shows you why these daring men were real heroes. You feel every shudder and hear every strain. You see that these spaceships were made of nuts and bolts, clamoring on the verge of breaking apart at any second. And, much of the space travel is presented as these men would see it – through a tiny window that is covered with condensation. Chazelle is wise to wait to show you the splendor of space until Armstrong experiences it, finally stepping onto the lunar surface. And even though you know how this story ultimately ends, you are still on the edge of your seat feeling the risk of every decision.
Ryan Gossling (La La Land, Blade Runner 2049) delivers a fantastic performance as Neil Armstrong, bringing a haunted, and questioning soul to the first man. We see the conflict behind the necessary control as Neil watches some of his fellow space pioneers tragically die. Claire Foye (Unsane) is just excellent as Janet Armstrong. She shines with strength. She is the supportive wife, but also desperately presses him to show emotion with his children and her. Both should receive Oscar nominations for their respective roles.
The Blu-ray plays wonderfully, filled with crisp contrast. The home viewing lends to a sense of claustrophobia which is such an essential element of the film, but I am sad that I didn’t see this in an IMAX presentation.
Celebrate the heroism of the man behind the mission to the moon. You will be better for taking the trip.
FIRST MAN is now available to own on Digital, Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.