Director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) has said he wanted his ambitious new film, First Man, to demonstrate just how terrifying it must have been for Neil Armstrong & Co. to fly to the moon for the very first time. He accomplishes that and then some with his remarkable movie that opens area-wide on Friday. Thanks to some compelling cinematography and terrific performances by leads Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, the movie simultaneously shows the personal side of the endeavor and masterfully recreates both the voyage itself and the walk on the moon.
As much as the film aims to capture how truly frightening it was to travel into space in the 1960s, it also sets out to capture what Neil Armstrong's personal life was like.
Early in the film, we see the Ohio-born astronaut (Gosling) struggle to cope with the death of his young daughter. Though he doesn't show any emotion as he seeks treatment for her inoperable brain tumor and seems entirely detached, he cares deeply for her. We see that when he breaks down in private during her funeral. Throughout the movie, Neil and his wife (Foy) appear estranged from one another as Neil would seemingly rather be working than spending time with his family.
He's a tough guy to figure out. In fact, when it comes time to fly to the moon, Jan forces him to explain the potential consequences to their sons. With the deadpan delivery of a poker player, Neil tells the kids he might not come back from the risky endeavor. Again, it's difficult to read his emotions, and Gosling does a great job of making Neil into someone so inscrutable that neither his fellow astronauts nor his family ever seem to know what he's thinking.
While working as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California, Neil began to experiment with flying into outer space. Those experiments often ended in near-disaster. And yet, his skills at escaping catastrophe and understanding physics catch the attention of NASA chief Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), who recruits him to work at NASA. Neil and his family relocate to Houston and preparation for a lunar landing begins.
Things don't go well. Neil sees many of his friends perish in test flights. In fact, he isn't even NASA's first choice when it comes to sending someone to the moon. But when he and the cavalier Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) get the call, they're ready, willing and able to take on the mission.
And so, we see the guys shoot off into space in a rocket ship that creaks so badly, it sounds like it could break into pieces at any moment. The launch scene is completely grueling, but once Neil and Buzz get into space, a certain tranquility takes over, thanks, in part, to the scenes that depict what it's like to float in zero gravity. The moments they spend on the moon come off as completely surreal, and Chazelle wisely doesn't let the special effects take over. Rather, he makes the moment seem serene and transcendent, an anti-climax of sorts.
Neil and Buzz return to Earth as changed men, something that comes across as Neil sits in quarantine awaiting a visit from Jan. The film's ending again shows Chazelle's remarkable ability to balance highly personal moments with the thrilling scenes of traveling into outer space.