Title: First Man
Describe This Movie In One Flash Gordon Quote:
EMPEROR MING: Pathetic earthlings. Hurling your bodies out into the void, without the slightest inkling of who or what is out here.
Brief Plot Synopsis: "We landed on the moon!"
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: 4.5 Georges Méliès out of 5.
Tagline: "One giant leap into the unknown."
Better Tagline: "We could walk forever, walking on the moon / We could be together, walking on, walking on the moon."
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: At the dawn of the 1960s, American prestige was at a new low* as the United States appeared to be falling irrevocably behind the Soviet Union in the Space Race. After President Kennedy declared the nation's intent to land on the Moon, new astronauts as well as those from the previous Mercury program were selected. Among them, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), a former Navy aviator, whose inclusion was nonetheless questioned due to personal issues. He and wife Janet (Claire Foy) were still grieving the recent death of their two-year old daughter Karen, a loss that would haunt his entire NASA career.
* 2010s America: Hold my beer.
"Critical" Analysis: First Man is a significant lane change for director Damien Chazelle, whose two previous films were a semi-autobiographical battle of wills and a Hollywood musical celebrating...Hollywood. Adapting James Hansen's Armstrong biography doesn't strike one as the logical next step in that progression, but it turns out to be a savvy move on Chazelle's part.
Taking us through the Gemini and Apollo programs, First Man is both a spiritual and narrative successor to Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff. Each film traces the path of America's space program, and both bring their main characters' families to the forefront, contrasting our nation's quest for glory against the toll it took on the astronauts and their families.
Neil Armstrong, as Gosling plays him, is a man of singular focus, but also one prone to retreating within himself. In his later years (oh, uh, spoiler warning), this would lead to claims of his reclusiveness, but here it serves to create friction with fellow astronauts Ed White (Jason Clarke) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and adds to the stress on his wife, who's forced to raise two rambunctious boys virtually on her own. Foy's Janet accepts this stoicism, and also demonstrates her own steel in scenes facing off with astronaut chief Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler).
More than that, First Man alternates Armstrong's personal conflicts with some of the best space action sequences ever filmed. Chazelle keeps the focus of these scenes — the near-disastrous Gemini 8 mission and Apollo 11 especially — almost wholly within the capsule's cockpits. The results are intensely claustrophobic, and combined with the accuracy of the technical details, provides perhaps the most fantastic and gripping vision yet of how quickly tragedy can turn to triumph, and vice versa, in the vastness of space.
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Chazelle is joined by much of his crew from La La Land, including editor Tom Cross, who contributes indelibly to the aforementioned action, and cinematpgrapher Linus Sandgren, contrasting the vivid wonders of space with an almost sepia-toned depiction of 1960s America that manages to be authentically period without devolving into kitsch (the most eye-popping aspect probably being Janet's numerous print dresses). Meanwhile, Justin Hurwitz's majestic score may be his best yet.
The only area where First Man kind of screws the pooch (to borrow a Right Stuff phrase) is its attempts to depict how divided many Americans were over the Space Race: a brief protest montage set to Gil Scott-Heron's (Leon Bridges) "Whitey on the Moon." A frank discussion of our nation's spending priorities re: the Apollo mission versus a social safety net isn't exactly in this story's wheelhouse, and the effort feels perfunctory at best.
That's too bad, because while First Man avoids mythologizing its subject as its delivering the most riveting spacefaring scenes since that other movie about interstellar travel (Spaceballs), it's fair to ask if those billions could have been better spent. Were there better endeavors to pursue? Or did Ed White have it right when he said, "If a civilization doesn't try to expand its horizons, it can never grow as a nation."
What was that about American prestige again?