First Man Review – The Deepest Crater of the Moon

‘First Man’ is directed by Damien Chazelle. It’s an account of Neil Armstrong’s life in the years leading up to and covering the Apollo 11 mission. The film is rated PG-13 for thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language.

First Man is more than just a stunning film – it’s one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in a theatre, particularly at its close. It’s a stark, sometimes tragic view on the lead-up to the Apollo 11 mission as much as it is about the moon landing.

Ryan Gosling is American astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first person to ever walk on the moon. What few consider are the huge steps he took on Earth to make that happen. As Armstrong’s successes bring him closer and closer to the moon, the threat of failure, a struggling relationship with his wife (Claire Foy) and family, and past tragedy haunt him every waking hour. The film covers Armstrong’s life from 1961 through 1969. It is based on First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, a biography by James R. Hansen.

Armstrong was never known for being a hot-shot, but one criticism I’ve seen is that Gosling plays Armstrong too coldly. Over the course of the film, he becomes alienated from his family, the result of years of failure and great loss. The accuracy may be debated, but Gosling’s performance is exceptional. He’s the human side of a struggle to win the space race and make it to the moon, and he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. His personal pain drives him.

Claire Foy does a stellar job as Neil Armstrong’s wife, Janet Armstrong. She is concerned and caring, yet as composed as she can be following tragedy after tragedy. As the world swirls around her husband, the fear of losing him to the black void grips her tighter and tighter. When a mission goes foul, and she is cut off from her husband’s audio feed, she marches down to condemn NASA executives as being ‘a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood’.

The film excels from a technical film making point of view. The lunar landing is a visual feast, but it’s the audio that makes the scene. The musical score (beautifully composed by Justin Hurwitz), the noises and feedback from the lunar module, and the selective use of silence all work together to transport the audience to a place few have ever been.

One memorable moment quickly cuts away from inside of the module and gives us a view of the barren, grey surface. It’s accompanied by a musical swell that creates a moment I wish I could see for the first time again and again.

The camera cuts from face to face to computer screen, occasionally taking a glance out the window to spot a new wonder. It’s suitably hectic and shaky, but it never feels overdone – just nail-biting. Once they’ve landed, the initial silence of stepping out into the vast expanse of the moon is so engrossing that your ears almost hurt. It’s intense and immersive – you’ve left your movie seat and you’re there, walking on the moon.

First Man is a deep, thoughtful film about empathy, but at the same time, the struggle of an entire nation to understand. Is reaching the moon worth the financial cost and loss of life? What will we find on the moon, if anything? The audience is not left feeling empty like the craters of the moon, but full, like the cramped corridors of the lunar module.

-Sean Daniel