First Man Wears A Brave Face

Stoic and Harrowing, It’s The Most Inspiring Hollywood Film In Years

First Man is not fun, in the Hollywood sense of the word. It’s harrowing, visceral, pulse-pounding, traumatic. Universal will not want to put a First Man ride in their amusement parks, even though it’s light years more thrilling than any Hulk-bulked rollercoaster or Hogwarts-themed 4-D ride featuring soul-sucking Dementors. The movie shows how tenuous real life can be, especially for heroic people determined to flirt with oblivion. Chaos haunts every frame. Death lurks throughout—its unpredictability, its unfairness, its finality.

That said, Damien Chazelle, by looking unromantically at how NASA’s Apollo program hurled astronauts onto the face of the moon, has made the most inspiring big-studio film in years. Maybe decades. And Neil Armstrong (dreamy stoic Ryan Gosling) embodies that inspiration. He’s a soft-spoken man, unflappable to a fault, who keeps his feelings bottled inside while staring down one of the most audacious goals in human history.

Watch as he flies 200,000 feet into the air, so high and so fast that he literally bounces on the atmosphere in a plane that almost shakes apart before slamming into the Mojave Desert. “You OK?” someone asks Armstrong after he staggers out of the cockpit. “Yeah. No big deal,” he shrugs, not so much cock-sure as shell-shocked.

Witness early tests of a lunar landing research vehicle, wildly thrashing Armstrong like a rag doll just dozens of yards above the ground before he triggers his parachute and gets dragged across a wheat field. And stare slack-jawed at the Multi-Axis Trainer Facility, which gyrates each astronaut so wildly that they can lose consciousness (Armstrong does it twice).

Our space cowboys endure it all, rifling through phonebook-thick manuals on Basic Rocket Science while wearing vomit-stained jumpsuits. Scientists harness them to “bleeding-edge” technology that’s now a half-century old, nuts-and-bolts machines that look more suited for a food cannery than human preservation. The 3800-ton Saturn V rocket, almost 40 stories tall, is composed of more than three-million parts, all of which need to work in concert flawlessly. Yet a Swiss Army knife wouldn’t be out of place in the command module.

“You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood,” cries Armstrong’s wife Janet (Claire Foy, indignant and brow-furrowed in her underwritten role). “You don’t have anything under control.” And she’s right: Mistake follows mistake on earth and in orbit. But more often than not competence, white-knuckled and sweaty-palmed, but steely and steady, eventually overcomes adversity.

The space race has faded into history now, so there shouldn’t be any surprises here—even when tragedy strikes and envelopes an unlucky few in spontaneous fire during one of the many launch-pad tests at Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral). But the saga of the Gemini and Apollo missions contains so much drama that even the smallest details are worth savoring. Who knew they pronounced Gemini “Gemi-NEE”?

FIRST MAN ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Written by: Josh Singer
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Clare Foy, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Jason Clarke
Running time: 141 min.


Armstrong provides the glue, binding all the disparate colleagues, superiors, and civilians together. He’s a steady force, but never one to outshine others. He wasn’t even the first man originally chosen to be the first man on the moon. There’s a sense of him being swept up by fate, like most great figures in history. Chazelle shows just how grounding principles like dedication, focus, humility, and perseverance are the real rocket fuel for outstanding achievements.

Echoes of Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff are rightly everywhere, as is Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film adaptation. But that chronicle of the envelope-pushing men behind the Mercury program who pioneered space flight isn’t concerned with the individual quite as much as the group (although Sam Shepard’s indelible portrayal of Chuck Yeager does inject some renegade romanticism into the story).

Can you hear me mumble in this helmet?

The two films actually make for apt complements, since The Right Stuff covers 1947 to 1963, and First Man spans 1961 to 1969. Kaufman, though, concerns himself more with with capturing the era, focusing on the out-of-this-world personalities (wives included) and then racking focus to reveal the agenda-driven sociopolitical culture at play.

Chazelle, on the other hand, paints a specific profile. After all, the screenwriter, Josh Singer, based his script the book “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong,” by James R. Hansen. The director’s myopic approach only hints at outside global dynamics. He does include a quick late-inning montage of Vietnam protesters and civil-rights unrest, all orchestrated to Gil Scott-Heron (Leon Bridges in a sly cameo) performing the enraged protest song “Whitey on the Moon.” It’s affecting, but only a superficial nod, since it’s not Chazelle’s priority anyway.

Instead, the Oscar-winning director makes a worthy successor to La La Land and Whiplash, both also studies in career commitment that show the meaning of sacrifice and how success takes its toll on the human condition. Professional dreams might have nightmarish moments. But the repercussions can make you positively moony.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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