Intimate look at space race propels First Man
I was speaking to a friend the other day about how we take the age we live in for granted. We punch 10 numbers into our cellphones and talk to people thousands of miles away and don’t give it a second thought. We have cures for diseases that were once fatal. And space travel? Well, does anyone really think about that at all anymore?
The best parts of Damien Chazelle’s First Man remind us of how wondrous and difficult it was, and still is, to put a man in space, a feat that we don’t give a second thought to now that commercial flights to the cosmos seem like a possibility in our lifetime. While not as comprehensive as Phillip Kaufmann’s classic The Right Stuff, it touches on many of the same events, albeit through the perspective of astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. Intimate rather than epic, the filmmaker’s approach is to be commended, though it isn’t wholly successful as the man at its center remains a cypher until the end.
The movie opens in 1961 with a harrowing sequence that will be repeated again and again. Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is testing the experimental X-15 aircraft, pushing it to its limits in order to see where its flaws lie. Instead of traditional shots showing us the plane rocketing through the sky, we are confined to the cockpit with Armstrong, our vision obscured, subject to massive shaking and the sounds of metal creaking, straining and rattling. This moment, as well as others depicting numerous missions, drives home the sense of danger these men faced better than any other film of its kind. In praising these men’s bravery and sacrifice, First Man has few peers.
However, the bulk of the film concerns Armstrong and his family, his long-suffering wife Janet (Claire Foy) and their two sons. Never an expressive man, the pilot is haunted by the death of his daughter, Karen, who suffered from a brain tumor and died at the age of two. Refusing to deal with his grief, Armstrong pours himself into his work, eager to do whatever is necessary to help NASA put a man on the moon, working long hours and putting himself in danger again and again. His tenacity pays off as he’s ultimately made commander of the Apollo 11 mission and goes down in history as the first man on the moon. However, his marriage suffered as a result, his steely wife Janet (a very good Claire Foy) tending to the couple’s sons, dual parenting even when Armstrong was at home.
More than anything, Man is a tribute to the first astronauts and their wives – the men putting their lives on the line each and every time they stepped into an experimental plane or space capsule, the women standing by, putting on a brave face while slowly dying on the inside due to stress and worry. Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer do a wonderful job of capturing the anxiety these women went through, giving due recognition to their sacrifice as much as their husbands’.
However, Armstrong remains an enigma to the end. A heartbreaking scene that takes place on the moon sheds light on what plagued and drove him, but it isn’t enough. Gosling does a fine job, but a lack of depth given to the man makes his job a difficult one. During many of the scenes on the moon, Armstrong’s face is obscured due to the reflective nature of his helmet. In many ways, this proves fitting as he seems to be a man of his times, one whose job and work ethic defined him, personal glory eschewed at every turn.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at email@example.com.
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