Director Damien Chazelle’s First Man is gorgeous, the acting is fantastic, and the sound editing is sure to bring an Oscar if Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy don’t as well. But those heading to the theater, and preferably an IMAX screen, looking for a romp through the heavens, will be disappointed, but hopefully delightfully so. First Man isn’t primarily about space. It’s about a person who ended up there. It’s a stripped down, raw story that serves as a reminder that not all heroes are full of one-liners, love the limelight, or are without heavy imperfection and deep emotional scars.
Let’s get to what many of you are wondering most about this film first—the action and its level of realism. This is a unique film in that it largely omits the technology out of flight sequences, but instead, it dials up the drama and suspense to the absolute max. On that level alone, many of the scenes are a cinematic triumph—you feel claustrophobic ‘in’ the capsules and are uncomfortably faced with the seemingly narrow margins for success of key maneuvers, but there is also something lost in the simplicity of it all.
Up until the Apollo 11 crescendo in the third act, the action scenes feel somewhat dreamlike more than grounded in reality. Instrumentation and the complexities of a craft’s human interfaces fade away and grand visuals and a focus on the human element of the operation take center stage. This movie plays very much like American Sniper in regards to how the complexity of the tasks and situations are presented. Really, if you asked me who directed the film without knowing in advance, I would say with high certainty that it was Clint Eastwood—which is definitely not a bad thing. And although the details are in shallow supply, the production quality is extremely high and downright visceral to an unnerving degree.
In other ways, the movie may take realism, or at least a gritty and drab take on it, a bit too far. For instance, the spacecraft interiors appear like they were shot in actual historic spacecraft that are in museums today. They look heavily weathered and patinaed by the passing of time, to the point that it was a bit distracting. Once again, raw was the goal here and the set design may be accurate to today but it is not accurate to the time when these craft were actually used. The cockpits of the capsules before they were flown did not really look those of beaten-down F-4 Phantoms that had flown hundreds of missions over Vietnam. This is a small thing, but it did really stand out to me.
The real capsules were definitely cramped and cluttered, but they were not worn-down and gritty like the movie portrayed them. This was the most cutting-edge tech of the era and NASA took pride in their vehicles.
I am happy to report that First Man does use copious amounts of practical effects to achieve its unique and immersive feel. Green screens were replaced with real projections and the conveyance of motion was achieved via elaborate mechanic means instead of over-dramatic acting and post-processing magic. These investments do pay off in big ways when it comes to fully realizing the unique texture of the film.
Once again, the sound editing is amazing in this film, especially in IMAX with Atmos or a similar audio system, but it’s also very unrealistic. The aircraft and space vehicles always sound like they are about to tear themselves apart during pretty much any activity. In fact, they sound more like a bridge that is about to fall than a spacecraft being blasted into space. Once again, maximum drama was the objective here, and it definitely works on that level.
The movie changes in some regards once you get to Apollo 11 and Armstrong’s history-making trip to the moon. A higher order or realism seems to have been put into play and the bone-jarring chaotic tones from earlier actions sequences are toned down so the historical narrative can shine through. And what a triumph this third act is. The total racket that the director used as a fulcrum to evoke emotion from the audience up until this point is replaced by numbing silence. In fact, the lack of audio—the creative use of negative acoustic space—in particular, becomes the star of the show.
The lunar module and moonwalking scenes are fantastic, but I did find the omission of the flag planting scene to be really strange. You can’t help but question why it wasn’t shown when the flag appears on the lunar surface as a background set dressing.
There was a lot of ridiculous controversy about this directorial choice prior to the movie’s opening, but by three-quarters of the way through the film’s runtime, it’s not hard to figure out why the choice was made if you try, even if it really didn’t work out as planned.
This movie isn’t really about America’s race to the moon. That is the canvas in which the story is painted, but the picture that is painted on that canvas is a deeply personal one. It is about a quiet and highly talented man who became a hero for the right reason—he was the right person for the job. And his incredible abilities, whether it be in the cockpit as a pilot or on a piece of graph paper as an engineer, were offset by a somewhat socially awkward, or at least highly reserved and measured demeanor. This facet of Neil Armstrong created challenges in his marriage and as a father and it was exasperated by the fact that he was dealing with the loss of his young daughter to cancer in emotional solitude.
Anyone who tells you this film was some major flag-waving idealized bonanza in American exceptionalism must have viewed it through a very warped prism. Those themes are highly muted during its entire runtime. Apparently, the omission of the flag planting scene—regardless of how that choice panned out—was to underline the very true fact that Neil Armstrong was not just an American hero, he was a hero of the planet. But even that was an external projection and title placed on him by society. By the end of the movie, you realize that he was such a unique hero because fanfare and celebrity really didn’t seem to even compute with him. It was an abstract idea that a man who lives by the certainty of numbers just wasn’t interested in embracing.
The real Niel Armstrong.
Like any similar film, creative license was clearly present, but it was not overwhelming. The areas of the film that really put it to work didn’t change much of historically and it did help tie the plot together in a more meaningful package and emotional package. One thing that may bother some viewers is the lack of a more thorough depiction of all the hard daily work and problem solving that got Neil and his crew to the moon, but once again, this isn’t a story about spaceflight primarily, it is one about a person who flew into space. Overall, don’t expect this to be a prequel to Apollo 13 because it is far from it when it comes to storytelling perspective.
Tangentially, this movie also served as a reminder of just how much our impression of human spaceflight is changing. The unique thing about America’s space program is that only those who worked the hardest and had the highest intellect and ability were able to get the privilege of leaving the planet. It was the one thing in America that just couldn’t be bought no matter how much money you had. Today, that is all changing and space is being turned into a tourist attraction for the very wealthy, at least for the foreseeable future.
I don’t want to argue the merits of commercial spaceflight and space tourism, it’s just interesting to note how this once almost sacred opportunity didn’t have anything to do with who your mom and dad were or how much money you made, it was about finding the very best among us because mitigation of risk is all that really mattered.
All said, First Man is a powerfully different and moving take on the space race, but more than that, it is an examination of literally the very best man America had at the time to make the dream of stepping on another heavenly body a reality. And even the directorial choices discussed above that I personally may have not made, I give huge credit for because they were bold and quite frankly, they were risky. And they really did end up working when you look at the movie as an entire entity, not just as a series of components.
In the end, the human journey is what soars in First Man. While one would think that watching the first human put their foot on the moon would be the film’s most powerful moment, what comes in the last scene of the movie—an event of the complete opposite magnitude—was really its most poignant moment.
That alone is an incredible achievement in filmmaking.
Rogoway’s review rating: 8G out of 9G
First Man is in theaters now.
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