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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Dan's Review: "First Man" a deep, personal view of historic Moon landing

Oct 14, 2018 11:11PM ● By Dan Metcalf

Ryan Gosling in First Man - © 2018 Universal Pictures.

First Man (Universal)

Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language.

Starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Shea Whigham, Brian d'Arcy James, Cory Michael Smith, J. D. Evermore, John David Whalen, Ethan Embry, Skyler Bible, Ben Owen, Olivia Hamilton, Kris Swanberg, Ciarán Hinds, Shawn Eric Jones, William Gregor, Steven Coulter.

Written by Josh Singer, based on "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong" by James R. Hansen.

Directed by Damien Chazelle.



There few historic events that carry such significance that they prompt the common “where you when…” question. “Where were you?” when you saw the 1969 lunar landing and heard Neil Armstrong utter his famous “One small step for man” declaration as he sauntered onto the powdery terrain of the Moon is one of them (if you’re over 55 years old). For most people who remember that moment, it may have seemed like it went off without a hitch because a whole bunch of really smart engineer-types had it all figured out, and it all went as planned.  First Man, Damien Chazelle’s new film about Armstrong’s famous moonwalk dispels some of those assumptions, presenting a movie that is altogether thrilling – and personal.

Ryan Gosling stars as Armstrong, a bookish engineer and test pilot seen by his colleagues as somewhat of a recluse. Armstrong’s aerospace career is sidelined by the death of his 2-year-old daughter Karen in the early 1960s. Armstrong’s wife Janet (Claire Foy) raises their two sons as Neil is accepted into NASA’s Gemini program, designed as a precursor to exploring the Moon. Neil’s relationship with his fellow astronauts is mostly pleasant, even though he is known to separate himself from others when grief sets in. When some of his colleagues are killed during training missions, including Armstrong’s friend and neighbor Ed White (Jason Clarke), Neil copes with the loss by diving deeper into his work. Armstrong has two extremely close calls with death, barely escaping by his wits and expertise. When NASA boss Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) taps him to lead the Apollo 11 mission as the first planned Moon Landing, Armstrong remains focused, despite the worries of Janet and others who aren’t entirely sure the mission will go smoothly. Janet forces Neil to come clean with their sons, explaining the risks before blastoff. The rest, they say is history, unless you’re a foil hat-wearing conspiracy theorist who’s still convinced that the entire Moon landing was an elaborate (and costly) hoax. Good luck with that. Conversely, as anyone with a basic knowledge of history knows, the mission was a success. What many not know is how close the mission came to failure, right down to the fuel shortage Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) encountered shortly before the “Eagle…landed.”

First Man is an excellent film, with several poignant scenes of personal struggle set against the backdrop of failures and triumphs of the Apollo program. Gosling’s performance as a man who is outwardly cold and stoic yet, torn apart inside by his own doubts and pain of loss is especially admirable. The movie could have been a matter-of-fact biography or history lesson, but Damien Chazelle’s decision to focus on Armstrong’s personal victories over the elements and his grief was particularly significant, giving First Man distinction over other more melodramatic films based on real event (The 33, Deepwater Horizon, Sully, Only the Brave, Apollo 13, etc.).

The scenes including Armstrong’s Gemini 8 mission and his brushes with death during test flights are constructed with expert precision, creating a visceral, authentic tension.

I suppose true heroes aren’t heroic simply because of what they accomplish, but through what they overcome to reach their achievements. First Man accomplishes this truth rather beautifully and honestly, without unfairly venerating Armstrong too much.

First Man is one of the best films of the year. I highly recommend it, not only as an examination of one of the seminal events of modern history but also a deep look at the humanity of those who carry out such events. 

First Man Trailer