In 1961, JFK announced before Congress a goal. A goal to send American astronauts to the moon before the end of the decade. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union sent satellites into orbit before everyone else, not to mention Sputnik becoming the first ever satellite going around the Earth. They sent their first man to the moon that same year. Years after numerous failed missions, Neil Armstrong stepped into make history in 1969 with Apollo 11.
Almost 50 years after the historic landing on the moon, it’s brought to the big screen. Director Damien Chazelle has directed two of the best films so far this decade with Whiplash and La La Land. He showcases his talents as a filmmaker with both films about the protagonist’s anxieties of going to new heights. His latest film, First Man, with a screenplay written by Josh Singer (the Oscar-winning Spotlight), continues this streak.
Based on James R. Hansen’s biography, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, the movie opens in 1961, with the NASA test pilot (Ryan Gosling) flying an X-15 into space. We get a beautiful, quiet moment in space, with Justin Hurwitz’s amazing score playing the background, until Armstrong heads back into the atmosphere with nerve-wracking, shaky camerawork making the audience feeling as if we are in the cockpit with Armstrong (same when he’s in the spacecraft).
Set from 1961 to 1969, Armstrong is depicted as a devoted father and husband to the loving Janet (Claire Foy). Along with their children, they move to Houston as Neil is offered to be in space programs, such as Gemini 8 and Apollo 1, after impressing everyone at NASA including Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler). It’s not until the historic day in 1969, where Neil joins Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) to be a part of the Apollo 11 program.
First Man has received controversy for its political stance and, more importantly, a scene where the American flag being planted on the moon not included in the film. Chazelle wanted the movie to focus on the emotional journey of Neil Armstrong. It might throw people off, but I don’t think it’s fair to miss out on an excellent, visceral biopic of an American hero for that particular reason (because of this, it only earned $16 million in the box office over the weekend). It’s a character study about entering into the unknown and the hardships of going the extra mile.
From Half Nelson to Drive to La La Land, Gosling proves he can portray nuanced performances. Leading a terrific cast, his performance as Neil Armstrong is the best performance of his entire career. He and his family make the ultimate sacrifice when he is offered to go into space. He loves his job so much that he wants to prove the Soviets their rival can bring a man safely on the moon. Look at his face during the scene where he watches a recording of JFK’s speech about sending a person to the moon. Foy is a tour-de-force as Janet, the housewife who roots for her husband every step of the way. She gets just as enough screen-time as Neil. Their scenes together will make you weep.
It’s refreshing to see a movie where the scenes in space are filmed with practical effects as opposed to CGI. It adds more to the film’s realism. The climactic moon landing sequence is like a dance, kudos to the cinematography by Linus Sandgren, who also collaborated with Chazelle in La La Land. It’s a moment that will be with me for the rest of my life.
There is never a dull moment in First Man. Gosling and Foy deserve attention this awards season. While it might have a tough run this past weekend, I hope more people will see it with an open mind and not worry about the controversy. It’s one of those movies where it should be seen on the biggest screen possible!