Movie Review – First Man (2018)
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
The title of this film could easily be “Last Man” because even though the story here is that of the first man to walk on the moon, the reason this particular man was the first is due to every other man dying in that pursuit. He was the last man left, so obviously he was going to be the first. Yes, it’s an exaggeration, but a lot of this film is about death and the loss of life in regard to NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs, the two programs designed to get an American on the moon.
Directed by Damien Chazelle (La La Land and Whiplash), the film starts in 1961 and follows a specific pilot who enters NASA’s program, seeking to become an astronaut. He was recruited along with a bunch of others who are trained and who have to prepare for going into outer space. As it goes, it could be an echo or else a sequel to The Right Stuff (1983). It could also be seen as a prequel to Apollo 13 (1995). In terms of real-life chronology, this movie is in the middle of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. In terms of quality, I would place this film in between those two as well.
If this film is about death, it definitely announces such after it’s thrilling opening sequence. Several of the astronauts die through the course of the film. Two of significance are Elliott See, played by Patrick Fugit (Gone Girl and Almost Famous), and Edward Higgins White, played by Jason Clarke (Mudbound and Zero Dark Thirty). The screenplay by Josh Singer (The Post and Spotlight), based on the book by James R. Hansen, is more a biography of Neil Armstrong. The screenplay is also a laser focus on Armstrong and Armstrong’s wife, limiting scenes to their points of view, so it excludes more from Elliott and Edward that maybe we should have gotten.
This is the case, mostly for Apollo 13, but there wasn’t a theme running through that 1995 film about loss and death. Chazelle makes that theme a reflection in his protagonist’s eyes and on his face. It’s less about getting to know those who are lost or memorializing them to the point we feel their losses. It’s more about how those deaths affect the protagonist and how it affects him with his family.
Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner 2049 and The Notebook) stars as Neil Armstrong, the pilot-turned-astronaut who can be charming and certainly loving to his wife and children, but he becomes taciturn and stoic as the movie progresses. He’s markedly not stoic in a very private moment. He cries alone. Yet, keeping quiet and keeping to himself becomes his modus operandi, much to his wife’s chagrin, which is underlined in a very climactic scene. Like with Gravity (2013), he has to face his issues of loss through a death-defying journey into space, and there could be something ironic about a man who embraces quiet and isolation by putting him in the most quiet and isolated place possible, in this case the surface of the moon.
The coda of this film doesn’t do much to complete what would be the arc of his character. Because it’s based on a true story and a real man, things probably couldn’t be changed too dramatically, except it could. Yet, instead of coming to a satisfying dramatic end, the film feels like it just stops and rather abruptly. Some could argue that it does have an arc and an ending to it that is represented in a final shot of a bracelet, but it’s not effective in addressing Neil’s issues or problems.
Chazelle shoots the film in a way that’s compelling. The opening sequence is representative of how the rest is shot. Chazelle’s camera mainly remains in the cockpit of the X-15. Neil’s flying of the X-15 put him on the map, so Chazelle puts us in the cockpit with Neil to immerse us totally and make us feel what he feels. That feeling must be a sense of claustrophobia mixed with a shaky rattle, which Chazelle definitely gives to his cinematography. He also limits the field of vision, which is what Neil had to face. The glimpses of the sky high above the Earth are both scary and awe-inspiring.
It’s not until Neil blasts off in Apollo 11 that Chazelle’s camera give us a wider and more diverse view. However, even then, it’s not much wider and much more diverse, but, in that regard, there is a scene or sequence where Chazelle breaks from Neil’s perspective or even his wife, Janet, played by Emmy-winner, Claire Foy (The Crown).
Chazelle breaks from that couple in a sequence that is very critical of the government and the so-called space race. It seems like a remnant from a version of the film that is more about that death theme and questioning if the money and lives lost to NASA were worth it. Yet, the film never reconciles that. The value of the moon landing, beyond the bragging rights of beating Russia, is never underlined, which probably only could be done with title cards at the end. Chazelle simply impresses the value of it as an overwhelming spectacle and hopefully that’s enough. It’s not like Hidden Figures (2016) where NASA’s achievements comes across as a triumph of human will or intellect. This film doesn’t really impress those things all that effectively.
Rated PG-13 for peril and brief strong language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 18 mins.