“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
The Neil Armstrong biopic First Man spans from 1961 to 1969 in the life of the famous engineer/aviator/astronaut, portrayed here by Ryan Gosling. It’s an enveloping character study thanks to Josh Singer’s screenplay, which is based on James Hansen’s biography First Man: A Life Of Neil A. Armstrong.
Gosling’s quiet, humble portrayal speaks volumes as his actions say as much as his honest and direct dialog. British actress Claire Foy does well with an American accent as the stressed out matriarch Janet Shearon, Armstrong’s first wife.
Corey Stoll makes a perfect Buzz Aldrin portraying a curt, insensitive yet very intelligent. Astronaut Ed White (Jason Clarke) tries to connect with Armstrong personally while filmmakers include other notable astronauts like Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber). Mike Collins (Lukas Haas) plays a key role in Armstrong’s Apollo mission while Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) portrays an important part of Armstrong’s Gemini mission.
Director/co-producer Damien Chazelle reassembles several members of his regular filmmaking crew including Justin Hurwitz (score), Linus Sandgren (cinematography), Mary Zophres (costume designer) and Tom Cross (film editor).
Armstrong’s opening flight scene sets a solid tone for the expert direction. Chazelle somehow captures the spaceships’ claustrophobic compartments and relentless vibrations without nauseating the audience. It’s an amazing achievement in direction and special effects changed by vocal audiences reacting to previous “queasy cam” techniques in Taken 3, Cloverfield, the Bourne film franchise and others.
Chazelle also mixes historical audio recordings into the film’s climax for some authentic and effective enhancement. Original video footage is also used, especially during the Apollo 11 mission sequences. A recent controversy surrounding how this film did not show the overt planting of the United States flag on the moon is following the film in the media but did not affect the mood of the moon landing while watching this film.
Hurwitz’s musical score hits some amazing notes with unique instruments including the Echoplex, Moog synthesizer and theremin, which Hurwitz performed for this quality score. Co-executive producer Hurwitz created equally unique sound effects like rerecording string movements through a Leslie rotor cabinet. According to Wikipedia, this Leslie speaker is a combined amplifier and loudspeaker that projects the signal from an electric or electronic instrument and modifies the sound by rotating a baffle chamber (“drum”) in front of the loudspeakers. All these sounds match the pitch and content of the film that follow a simple main theme – awe.
Humility, drive, and leadership also permeate through the film as Armstrong impressively forges his way through the NASA space program’s Gemini and Apollo missions. Gosling portrays incredible focus and credibility through his dedicated work while he also works through personal tragedy and family life.
This film keeps a steady, appealing flow while holding the audience’s attention throughout; with the exception of a choppy sequence after some events involving a lunar module with NASA’s point men Robert Gilruth (Ciarán Hinds) and Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler). This sequence just comes off a bit staged just so Armstrong can say “it’s a bit late to question our direction now” to them as they begin to waver after another key setback.
Armstrong’s struggles and dramatic personal narratives definitely drive the film. I wasn’t even thinking about the most well-known moments until they occurred in the film because the narrative is so involving, which makes those moments even more special.
Chazelle and his crew also add cultural touchstones of the times like the protests due to the exorbitant amounts of governments funds spent on NASA’s space program. The “space race” with the Russians continues while domestic weaknesses like race relations, social impacts, and economic instability persist.
By the end, audiences have this basic dichotomy – are these astronauts heroes who embody man’s quest to reach new technological frontiers or just trained men crazy enough to ride in the world’s most expensive tin can? Filmmakers cover both with worldwide montages of the universal significance and celebration of the historic moon landing achievement and Janet humbling NASA chiefs by telling them “You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!”
First Man comes recommended (*** out of four stars) and is rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril and brief strong language. Also playing in IMAX theaters. First Man is the first Universal Pictures film to use IMAX cameras and was co-executive produced by Steven Spielberg.
Copyright © Michael Siebenaler