Two years after the premiere of La La Land, Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling have teamed up once again to create another likely Oscar contender. This time, however, rather than merely floating off into space, Gosling suits up and takes a shuttle, in a portrayal of Neil Armstrong in the years leading up to the Apollo 11 mission for the new movie First Man.
First Man—which follows Armstrong from being a civilian test pilot for Project Mercury to being the first person to step foot on the moon—reveals the tragedy and hardship hidden beneath the glory of mankind’s greatest mission. Before becoming a household name, Armstrong had to endure not only the professional difficulties that inherently come with being an astronaut, but also great personal tragedy—losing his 2-year-old daughter to pneumonia and several of his colleagues to failed NASA operations. In the face of these hardships, however, Armstrong remained stoic—a side of his character that Gosling was able to portray excellently, while still being incredibly moving in the moments where Armstrong’s facade does crack.
The film doesn’t feel like a regular space movie—partly because large portions of it take place on Earth, but mostly because it takes few pains to help viewers understand the logistics of the space travel, a la Gravity and The Martian. Throughout the film, the information the audience receives about the crises that happen mid-space flight consists of no more than bits of astronaut jargon, some flashing signals, and lots of loud noises. While laymen to the art of space flight may not fully understand what’s going on, they honestly don’t need to: The acting, cinematography, and sound editing do the work and make the audience feel the same pressure they would feel in the astronauts’ shoes anyway.
What sticks out about First Man the most is that it takes its time on each scene. While the film jumps from year to year, when it chooses to show a moment, it shows it to the fullest—letting the scene unravel in what almost seems like real time, which again helps the audience feel like they are right there with the space travelers.
In short, this is a film bent on showing instead of telling, and while this makes it less enthralling for viewers at many points along the way, in the end, it pays off. Upon leaving the theater, the audience feels like they have watched the events as they have really unfolded, as if they were right there alongside Armstrong the whole time.
The film’s score was composed by another La La Land alum, Justin Hurwitz. But much unlike the 2016 musical rom-com, music is sparse throughout First Man—a strategy that actually enhances the realism of the movie experience, as in both space and solitudinous thought, the outside world (or lack thereof) is often silent. When there was music, however, it was beautiful. One of the main themes is played on the obscure musical instrument called a theremin, which without any physical contact from the performer—strangely enough—creates a sound that almost resembles a wailing woman. The result is a mournful melody that haunts the viewer with the weight of the sorrow that Armstrong carried with him to the moon.
The film is not flashy, nor is it exciting, but that’s precisely the point. For example, the audience sees the moon landing not in the way it was experienced back on Earth, but in the way Armstrong experienced it. He couldn’t see the people waving American flags as they watched televised broadcasts in the streets, and he couldn’t hear the cheering families gathered around their radios. The only view he had was that of the barren grey landscape of the new world he had touched, the only distractions from his thoughts were a few crackling voices over the mission control radio.
First Man emphasizes the human aspects of the journey leading up to that “giant leap”—the parts that were messy, the parts that were tragic, and the parts that were failures. It portrays the story behind one of the most exciting moments in human history in a way that’s somber and subtle, and serves as a poignant reminder of the fact that the path to greatness often isn’t simple or glamorous or beautiful. In a 1962 speech at Rice Stadium, President John F. Kennedy said that “we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” and First Man tells the story of the man who knew how hard that journey was more than any other.
Featured Image by Universal Pictures