By Conor Doyle ‘19
“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
When I hear those words, I think of a few things. One is Neil Armstrong as he steps out of the Eagle to be the first human to walk on the Moon. Another thing is victory in the space race over the Russians, after being behind for the preliminary stages of the race. This movie is about the former rather than the latter, with a heavy concentration on the years and challenges leading up to Apollo 11.
“First Man” is another cinematic masterpiece by Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”), as he masterfully uses cinematography to capture the essence of the scenes. Chazelle allows you to feel as if you are also present in the spacecraft, with the trebling and loud launches being abruptly silenced by the vacuum of space. He expertly captures the quieter moments as well as the loud, using the great talent he has in actors and actresses such as Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy.
The movie opens with the audience gaining a first-person perspective of Armstrong in a X-15 rocket plane that shakes as he attempts to re-enter the atmosphere. While he finally does manage to land the plane, he is grounded as those on the ground suspect he is distracted over his two-and-a-half year old daughter’s brain tumor. When his daughter finally dies, he is distraught, but applies to the Gemini program to allow himself distance, as getting accepted would mean moving from California to Texas.
As the training begins, Armstrong befriends fellow astronauts Elliot See and Ed White, becoming close friends. Armstrong is eventually selected to command the Gemini 8 mission, however tragedy strikes when See is killed in a plane crash shortly before launch. As Gemini 8 proceeds, all seems to be going well until the ship enters an uncontrolled spin. With the spin rate increasing along with Armstrong nearing unconsciousness, he manages to safely abort the mission.
However, tragedy is not done with Armstrong and NASA as during a test for Apollo 1, the entire crew, commanded by White, is killed by an electrical fire. As the time nears for Apollo 11, Armstrong is informed that he will command as he is the only one to have experience piloting the Lunar Lander. As the launch grows nearer, his wife Janet, scared for their children after what happened with Apollo 1, demands that he prepare his children for the possibility of not returning.
Chazelle also successfully moves away from the mold of other movies based on NASA, focusing more on the character’s life leading up to the eventful day, rather than the actual day itself. Through this, we are able to more easily explore the human interaction and the struggles that come with it instead of triumph after triumph.
Josh Singer (“The Post”) is able to write seamless dialogue that allows us as the audience to have insight into the characters. His characters, from Buzz Aldrin to Armstrong, speak volumes to the amount of research done and his commitment to authenticity.
Ryan Gosling, however, stands above the rest in his performance. He is able to capture the spirit of soft spoken Armstrong in this movie by using emotions and facial expressions instead of relying on words. Gosling conveys a sense of a quiet man who readily accepts his mission and life, but suffers much tragedy along the way.
In all, even though it is slow at times, Chazelle’s “First Man” is a fantastic drama with fleshed out characters, fantastic writing and intense space scenes.