Let’s talk about First Man.
I love space. I was fascinated when we received that picture of the far off galaxy just before Christmas, even though it looked like a potato. And looking at the space race between the USA and the Soviet Union is even more fascinating. What they did with so little technology, the smartphone you are reading this on had more computer power than NASA had back then. It’s half the reason I loved Hidden Figures, which shows us a time when computers were actual people as well as how important black people were to the space race, something often ignored. But eventually, we had to have a movie about the big one, the first man on the moon.
So we get the appropriately titled First Man, which is about Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. It starts right at the start of the 1960s when Neil first joins the astronaut program and goes right until the famous moment and spoiler alert, the famous line.
This isn’t a plot-heavy movie. While there’s a lot of big things that happen which means you can write a hefty synopsis if you wanted, it doesn’t ever feel like the plot is the key point of the movie. The first few scenes are the movie about the death of Neil’s daughter and this part never really clicks. Because the movie is very subtle in terms of its storytelling, it does struggle to show the impact of something so heavy because it’s trying to do it in the first ten minutes when we don’t know who anyone else. Because of the way the movie works, it takes a long time to get to know the characters. It takes a while to get a handle on Neil, especially when for the longest time we only know him fearing for his daughter’s life and then grief-stricken when she dies. That’s not to say the start of the movie is bad and doesn’t have it’s strong moments, one particular scene where Neil’s son asks him to play during the funeral and he says no is tough to watch, but it’s definitely the weakest point.
The movie continues to build and get better as you start to get to know Neil. You can see why no one has made a movie about him before or why he never ended up on the reality show circuit like fellow Moon-walker Buzz Aldrin, he’s not exactly ideal leading man material. He’s a quiet man who is dedicated to the job in hand and not much else. He’s a pleasant person to be around but not exactly someone you remember. I really like the way that Gosling plays him as he brings a quiet charm and likability to a character, meaning that despite him being reserved he’s still interesting to follow around. It also helps that the movie makes a point of Neil not being the most interesting man in the world. He is completely out of his depth when he is at the White House being quizzed by congressmen who would like to defund the space program while he is out-shadowed by a funny Buzz Aldrin at the press conference. But if there’s one thing the movie makes you know about Neil is that he was damn good at what he did.
The reason the plot isn’t in focus during the movie is because it would rather sell us the experience. And boy does it pay off. You realise this is a truly brilliant movie when Neil goes into space for the first time. This is the best rocket launch scene I’ve ever seen because it is truly terrifying. The camera shakes like a blender, the rocket looks and feels like it could break at anytime and everything rattles like it’s been put together in a shed. This movie really does sell how terrifying it was to be an astronaut and take these first steps into space. Damien Chazelle shows why is one of the best directors in the world right now with this scene which is scarier and more nail-biting than any horror movie I’ve seen over the last year. And that’s despite the fact I know that Neil obviously survives! In terms of this, I can only compare the movie to Interstellar. Yes, the plot was important in that, but it felt much more like an experience than a big plot heavy thing. And it’s much the same here.
But that doesn’t mean that the movie doesn’t have some great storytelling moments. It’s just not in your face about it, situations just develop and it feels very natural. This is the case with the marriage between Neil and Janet. For a long time, Janet isn’t that much of a factor in the movie. She’s there, but other than a scene where she demands a radio to the Genesis program is turned back on so she knows what’s happening with Neil, she is mostly in the background. But the movie still establishes this rising tension between Neil and Janet, especially with their communication. This comes to a head near the end where Janet blows up as it doesn’t seem like Neil is being honest with her or the kids about how dangerous the Apollo mission is. This was obviously the bit they wanted to be in all the Oscar compilations had Claire Foy been nominated for the Best Supporting Actress but even though it won’t be on them, it’s still a great display from Foy.
First Man is a fantastic movie that proves that Damien Chazelle is one of the best directors working today. A lot stumble on their third movie but this follow up to Whiplash and La La Land is up there in terms of quality. And it is completely different to the music-driven experiences those movies were, this is a testament to the huge risks those astronauts took in a bid to advance humanity as a whole. It may not tell you much about how they got to the moon, you really do feel the journey they went on to get to the moon. It’s a must watch. Also, it really doesn’t matter that they don’t make a huge point of the US flag being put into the Moon you looking for outrage sods.