First Man (2018)
First Man (2018)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 21 min.

Release Date: October 12th, 2018 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Damien Chazelle Actors: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, Ciaran Hinds, Olivia Hamilton

 


 

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fter a string of problematic test flights of the X-15 hypersonic aircraft in California, aeronautical engineer Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) finds himself relegated to desk work. When tragedy strikes his family, the pilot decides to apply to Project Gemini, NASA’s human spaceflight program. Upon being accepted, Armstrong begins a momentous career that sees him involved in numerous space flights and even commanding Gemini 8, an extremely complex expedition requiring rendezvous and docking with the orbiting Agena Target Vehicle. As he struggles with his relationships with his wife (Claire Foy) and children at home, Armstrong prepares for his most monumental assignment yet – the Apollo 11 mission to land two astronauts on the moon.

The 1961 test run that opens the movie, in which Armstrong bounces off the atmosphere yet manages to get back down to the Mojave Desert landing site, displays the impressive visuals and technical proficiency that pervades the entirety of the film. It also features “First Man’s” most unique aspect – that of its first-person, or nearly first-person perspective. Rather than embracing the widescreen format with sweeping horizons, director Damien Chazelle places the camera right beside or behind his star, allowing audiences to go along for the various rides as if they were inside the cockpit with him. It’s a striking viewpoint; instead of seeing the exterior of the jets or rockets or lunar landing vehicles, viewers rarely see anything that Armstrong cannot. Tiny windows and portals provide minuscule glimpses of the atmosphere-shattering events taking place just outside.

Curiously, he takes a similar approach when laying out the human interactions, which has the opposite effect. Nearly continual close-ups are utilized, lingering for far too many seconds, as if the camera wishes to peer into its subjects’ souls. It’s invasive and jarring (and also jerky, with lots of handheld work), failing to generate a sense of connection with the NASA crew or with Armstrong’s family; it mostly feels interruptive or uncomfortable, as if moviegoers are interfering with the routines on display.

“It’ll be an adventure.” Though it follows the general formula for a biopic, delving into all the aspects of the space missions right alongside details of Armstrong’s personal life, its overlong running time is felt most when the melodrama of familial strife invades the specialization montages that cover training exercises, space-race rivalry with the Soviet Union, and the many malfunctions or other tragedies that took the lives of astronauts. Family life, social gatherings, children growing up, and concerned wives eat up plenty of minutes, dragging out what could have been a much sharper picture chronicling the rocky journey toward finally putting a man on the moon.

At least there’s unexpected comedy in the process, primarily from simulators and monotonous physics reports, but that levity infrequently transfers over into Neil’s deficiencies in communicating with his loved ones. The film may serve largely as a history lesson, but “First Man” answers few questions as to how Armstrong effectively related to his wife and children. For the most part, he’s detached and indifferent. Had his scripting allowed for a greater emotional connection for the audience, he might have come across as the hero that the general public saw; it’s not as if this film was designed to expose his psychological demons.

Nevertheless, the exhaustive reconstructions of rockets and shuttles and NASA facilities are tremendous, exposing the claustrophobic interiors (made more extreme by all the close-ups) and the startlingly limited visibility. The turbulence and other vibrations become inordinately terrifying as they’re portrayed again from the pilots’ perspectives, replacing the awe of space views with panic-inducing panels of flashing lights and readouts as docking procedures, stationkeeping, and the correction of sudden rolls are tackled. Countless unknowns create a number of suspenseful moments, despite the fact that the ultimate wins and losses of the Gemini and Apollo flights pose few genuine surprises.

“We’ve got this under control.” There’s also a hint of the politics, the dangers, the fame, and the absence of stability for worried family members (emotional scenes that feel forced, as if Chazelle demanded pathos when the sense of adventure wasn’t enough), though these components drop off as the ’69 blast-off and eventual moon-landing approach. Thanks to a powerful, stirring score by Justin Hurwitz, these long-awaited, climactic sequences hold considerable weight. Perhaps more than “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13,” audiences get to immerse themselves in the breathtaking excitement of space exploration – and the incomparable splendor of setting foot on the moon.

– The Massie Twins

  • 8/10