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Review: First Man

Sarah Ward

As much a space movie as a psychological drama, this Neil Armstrong biopic combines the visceral and the thoughtful.
Review: First Man

Ryan Gosling stars in the First Man.

Like the edge of the earth’s atmosphere, the line between dedication and distraction is thin, bordering upon imperceptible. In First Man, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling, Blade Runner 2049) finds himself bouncing along both divides – and director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) conveys every visceral and emotional shake and shudder. While adapted by screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) from the official biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, the film charts an intimate, internalised journey as much as it does the historic voyage to the moon. Of course, the two are intertwined; whether Armstrong would’ve made one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind if he wasn’t wrestling with one of the worst occurrences that someone can face is something that we’ll never glean. 

We can extrapolate, however. Dancing through the intersection of inner conflict and external glory as he did with both Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle certainly does. While First Man doesn’t wholly answer its central question, it does float the idea that Armstrong’s path would’ve been different had he not been wearing the scars of tragedy – perhaps not in the end result of the Apollo 11 mission, or in the impact that it had around the world, but to the man himself and his family. It’s written across every aspect of Gosling’s affecting and astutely understated performance, playing Armstrong as a man fuelled not only by his own driven nature, but by bearing the weight of loss. A fire in the belly can motivate someone to do extraordinary things; the smouldering coals that remain when the flames go out can still spark just as strong a reaction.

Charting Armstrong’s evolution from civilian aeronautics test pilot trialling hypersonic rocket-powered jets, to NASA astronaut working on the Gemini and then Apollo missions, to the first human to walk on the lunar surface, First Man paints its protagonist as diligent, devoted and even daring, though they’re traits that shine at work more than at home. Married to the supportive but matter-of-fact Janet (Claire Foy, Unsane), their idyll is rocked by the death of toddler daughter Karen (debutant Lucy Stafford) to a brain tumour, burdening Armstrong with festering pain and grief that he prefers to leave unspoken. When asked about his mourning in his NASA interview, he comments that yes, it will affect him. It does, but the sincere, unshowy and stoic figure continues to carry it quietly. And, as the Armstrongs move to Houston, grow their family and weather the toll of years of striving to achieve the previously unachievable – including more losses experienced as part of the job – that remains the case. 

Sending anyone into space, let alone to the moon, is a deed that’s both a fascinating wonder and the result of much hard work. First Man steps through the mechanics behind the feat, with scientific terminology flowing freely, but it’s just as concerned with the mechanics of Armstrong’s mind and heart, if not more so. Alongside the highs and lows of the preparation process – working under Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler, Game Night) and alongside fellow astronauts such as Ed White (Jason Clarke, Chappaquiddick), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit, TV’s Outcast) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll, The Seagull) – the film examines what makes Armstrong tick behind his firm gaze. Painted in shades of melancholy and shouted through silence, it’s as much a space movie as it is a psychological drama about grief, and it’s an extraordinary effort thanks to its chosen approach.

Indeed, thoughtful is the apt term for a feature so innately immersed in its protagonist’s mindset, although First Man earns that description in its rendering of Janet as well. Just as Neil is strong and silent but never adheres blandly to stereotype, Janet is caring yet never passive, with the two characters the product of textured performances from Gosling and Foy. Viewers can always feel exactly the couple is going through, as each labours to persevere and endure in their own ways. That Chazelle and his La La Land cinematographer Linus Sandgren keep the camera close to the characters only heightens the intimacy, relaying complex sentiments in the flicker of an eye.

In its overtly sensory moments, that’s also part of First Man’s remit. If you can tell much from staring someone in the face when they’re wading through an indescribable, inescapable low, you can also understand plenty when they’re jolting and juddering among the stars. From its opening scenes during a near-fatal jet test in 1961 to the eventual passage above in Apollo 11, Chazelle depicts sitting in a tin can in space as a head-shaking, fist-clenching, window-rattling experience, and the vibrations sparked by the resultantly jumpy imagery and whirring sound design equally establish and encapsulate the film’s tone. Even when it’s not overwhelming viewers with the intensity of shooting for the moon, First Man is steeped in the stress that overwhelms Armstrong within. And, while the astronaut travelled 384,400 kilometres upward to trade the latter for the former, albeit briefly, both parts of his life story forever share the same emotional orbit.

4 stars ★★★★

First Man
Director: Damien Chazelle
US, 2018, 141 mins
Release date: October 11
Distributor: Universal
Rated: M


About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay