There are few moments in history that are as significant an achievement for all of humanity than that of the moon landing in 1969 – a feat that, at the time, was so monumentally dangerous and unparalleled by previous endeavours that it looked to many as nothing short of impossible.
Since the Apollo 11 mission saw astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon on July 20 1969, the phrase “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” has been etched into the collective memory of people worldwide; and FIRST MAN celebrates this achievement in all its glory.
While there is no shortage of fictional depictions of the moon landing, First Man separates itself from many iterations of this story through the personal approach it takes, digging deeply into the life of Armstrong himself – the first human in history to step foot on the moon. This should come as no surprise, with the film from Academy Award-winning director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) being based off James R. Hansen’s biography on Armstrong, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong.
In depicting a more personal vision of the historical events, Chazelle and Singer manage to create something ironically (for the best) much more human than anything else. Weaving in the more personal aspects of the astronaut’s life – with Ryan Gosling giving another career-high performance as Neil Armstrong – with the more well-known historical events, the film manages to retain a gripping sense of urgency and suspense in a story that we all know the ending to.
What’s perhaps more impressive is the visual storytelling present in the film, clearly and artfully juxtaposing the warm, nostalgic feeling of 1960’s Americana with the thrilling and at times beautiful depiction of space travel – in all its glory and peril. While various filmmakers have depicted space in inventive ways in the past – from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013) – First Man gains its strength in the discord it creates between the comfort of home and the dangers of the great beyond; all while exploring an otherworldly sense of serenity.
Scenes of suburban pool party’s lit by the sun’s warm glare create a postcard-worthy image opposite the claustrophobic, shaky visuals inside the cockpit as Armstrong and his fellow astronauts attempt the un-attempted. Not only is the sense of danger palpable in these scenes, but the reward is well worth it; 50 years after 2001, filmmakers like Chazelle are still able to depict space through a truly inventive lens unlike anything else.
While these stunning visuals make the film nice to look at, it’s the gripping performances from the stellar cast that really sell the humanity that the carries the film through to the end. Alongside Gosling, Claire Foy (The Crown, Unsane) leads the film’s rather limited female cast as Armstrong’s wife Janet Shearon, who’s left to pull together Neil’s family life as the pressures of landing on the moon weigh down on him. Though there are few other female characters to share the spotlight with Foy, she still delivers a powerful reminder of the personal costs of the Apollo 11 mission and how this obsession could ripple through the astronauts’ lives. Aside from Foy and Gosling, the cast is rounded out with support from the likes of Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, Terminator Genisys) and Kyle Chandler (Argo, Manchester by the Sea), as well as Corey Stoll (House of Cards, Antman) as Buzz Aldrin – the second man to walk on the moon after Armstrong.
For fans of Chazelle’s previous films La La Land and Whiplash, it may seem like little of the director’s iconic jazz-influenced style carries over into First Man, especially with this being the first film he’s directed that he hasn’t also written. However, you can rest easy, as First Man sees Chazelle’s frequent collaborator, composer Justin Hurwitz (La La Land, Whiplash) return to deliver a nostalgic score that compliments the warm and fuzzy imagery of 1960’s America all while building tension in the films more gripping moments.
Despite being a story that has been told time and time again, First Man is a take on the iconic events, unlike anything we’ve seen before. Delivering an eye-opening and surprisingly emotional depiction of one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments, First Man packs a punch that many audiences might not expect: It’s one small step for film and one giant leap for filmmakers everywhere.
About the author
ABOUT THE WRITER: Harry Sabulis is a film, music, theatre and media crazed writer with a passion for all things artsy. A certified nerd and aspiring screenwriter, Harry loves storytelling in all of its forms. You can read some of his film reviews on his blog, Kill The Critic.