“First Man” is a gripping personal view of one of humanity’s crowning achievements. When three astronauts traveled to the Moon, and two of them touched down and explored the lunar surface, it was a stunning accomplishment. Now there is a movie that defines the inner drive and personal demons of that initial person who put down a boot onto the crusty dust of the Earth’s satellite. That person was Neil Armstrong, and he was the “First Man” to get that historical privilege. This movie is a reminder of the technological push of the 1960’s that took America to the Moon and back.
Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is an engineer and a test pilot at NASA. He is not one of the military-bred astronauts that first rose in the ranks of the Air Force. Yet his cool-headed ability to think deeply, even in extreme circumstances, makes him a valuable addition to the group of space-bound pioneers. He and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) have a perfect 1960’s marriage. She tends the home front, and he ventures into space. Neil and Janet have a young daughter named Karen, but she passes away from cancer. Even with all the up-to-date technology, their little two-year-old could not be saved. They already have a son, and soon after, they have one more boy. But Neil is shattered inside from the pain of his loss. He is introverted and a shy person to begin with, so the loss does not help.
Neil has skills and knows how to take high-level math equations and then using that knowledge to fly and pilot a spacecraft. He has experience with the experimental rocket planes, and he jumps at the chance to get into the Gemini program. That space program will be another step on the way to the big cheese – the Moon. The Gemini craft will hold two astronauts, and the planned Apollo mission will carry three. When Neil gets selected, he is very pleased to be working for former astronaut Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler). The Gemini missions will be important to pave the way for Apollo and moon landings. The mission that gets Neil into space goes well, and the docking tests go smoothly. That is, until there is a problem with the thrusters…
Neil and his fellow astronaut are soon spinning out-of-control. Neil figures out a way to reverse the bad thruster, and gets the Gemini under control again. It uses up most all the fuel, so the mission needs to be aborted. But one bad mission left the astronauts safe. Not so with the first testing of Apollo 1, with all three astronauts on-board in the capsule. In the simulated launch, there was an electrical spark that ignited the pure oxygen in the capsule. All three died in the test, and the Apollo missions were delayed for a while. But then Neil was picked for Apollo 11, as was Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas). This was the mission that would go to the Moon, land and explore the surface, and get the three explorers back in one piece.
Neil and Buzz make it to the lunar surface, and they are true explorers. But every step of the way was a catastrophe that did not happen. Every piece of equipment had potential for failure, no matter how many engineers worked on the design. Some of the people lost their lives along the way to Neil’s ‘one small step’. He knows that, and he knows that his safe return is only the best of the calculated odds. His trip is successful and NASA still explores into space.
Damien Chazelle has taken the story of the first man on the moon and explored the difficult personal journeys of the people involved. There is always an emphasis on the characters and what they can see and how they react to all the events that surround them. Even with a ground-breaking walk on the moon, there is the inner pain of Armstrong’s loss of his daughter. The launch is not shown as a breath-taking wide shot of the rocket zooming into the sky. There is a real person strapped into the Spam can attached to the top of a big firecracker. The sounds of creaking and straining bolts make you think at any moment it will become the Fourth of July.
Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong ass a very soft-spoken and subdued man. He is always examining and recalculating the situation, to make sure there is way to continue the mission. That includes his marriage. Claire Foy also gives a powerful performance as Janet; the wife who needs to raise her kids but is not afraid to raise her voice. The other actors have also been cast with an idea as to how well they would fit in the 1960’s Space Race.
“First Man” is nearly fifty years in the making since the actual events that mesmerized the world. It tells of real adventure in the outer space, but still keeps in focus the difficult emotions of Armstrong’s inner space.