There are few events in life that people remember exactly where they were when it happened. 9/11 and the fall of the Berlin are often brought up as such events, but perhaps the most memorable was the moon landing. Much is made of the landing itself and the larger Space Race, but often overlooked is the story behind the man who stepped on the Moon first, Neil Armstrong. The biopic First Man succeeds in telling the story of Armstrong while also having a larger conversation about progress and failure through the Space Race.
First Man switches often between Armstrong’s personal life and his missions for NASA, providing a good blend of action and background story. As we learn more about Armstrong’s personal life, we see him become more detached from his family and friends, especially after the death of his fellow astronauts and his young daughter Karen. He often hides himself from others by going on missions to space and focusing solely on his mission. At one point, he holds a press conference for the upcoming Moon landing, followed by a press conference like meeting with his two boys, trying to avoid telling them he might never come back from space. This emotional struggle is interesting to follow and gives meaning to scenes that have little action, keeping the film entertaining throughout.
The action scenes are gripping and intense, thanks in part to great cinematography and sound design. The Gemini 8 scene where Armstrong and his fellow Astronaut are struggling to regain control of the spacecraft without passing out is made much scarier by a creepy whirring noise throughout the chaos as well as a perfect mix of action and tension with great camera work.
Another great use of cinematography is when the Saturn V rocket is taking off from Earth for the Gemini mission. Instead of including shots of the rocket from outside to show a larger scale, the camera remains constant from within the cockpit, giving insight into the claustrophobia and lack of control Armstrong felt during the space missions.
Since space is eerily silent, the director Damien Chazelle uses silence at several points in the movie to build tension as well as a sense of grand scale that only the Moon and space can allow for. This in combination with a fantastic score by Justin Hurwitz is by far the best part of the movie and really allows for the story to take center stage. The best use of sound was during the entire Moon landing scene, where music played on the tape recorder gives a majestic feel to space, while the silence during the shot of the Moon surface highlights the total emptyness and loneliness of space.
The story of the space race and Neil Armstrong would be impossible to tell effectively without good acting, and First Man is a mixed bag in this regard. Ryan Gosling portrays Armstrong very well, highlighting his complex emotional struggles that he experienced after the death of his daughter in a way that was easily conveyed. Claire Foy also did a great job of acting as Gosling’s counterweight, displaying Janet’s built up emotion at several points, adding weight to the family dynamic in the film. Unfortunately, the rest of the acting falls short of creating emotional investment in Armstrong’s fellow astronauts, my main criticism of the film. It fails to make the tragic deaths meaningful beyond to anyone beyond Armstrong, including the viewer. While the storywriting falls short here, it’s also largely due to average acting.
Despite having its faults, First Man successfully tells often simplified story of Neil Armstrong and the Space Race in general thanks to a stellar atmosphere and top tier directing by Damien Chazelle and acting by Ryan Gosling. In doing so, the film presents itself as one of the best biopics of the year.