First Man review: A thrilling and awe-inspiring Armstrong biopic

Steve Hogarty
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First Man

When it was first screened, Damien Chazelle’s movie about that time we went to the moon drew criticism from a particularly moronic corner of society.

Ryan Gosling stated his educated belief that Neil Armstrong never considered himself to be an American hero. Coupled with the director’s decision not to include a scene in which the astronaut plants the Stars and Stripes on the moon’s surface, this angered the country’s patriots, whose unwavering belief in American exceptionalism can evidently be shaken to its core by a film about space by the guy who did La La Land. Republican senator Marco Rubio, with clear self-serving motives, blasted the omission on Twitter, calling it “total lunacy”.

But First Man very deliberately focuses not on America’s sprint to win the space race, but on the personal journey of Armstrong himself, who Gosling portrays as a straight-laced and emotionally constipated engineer, a man more comfortable in the cockpit than the limelight.

His trajectory from test pilot to moonwalker was marked by repeated tragedies, beginning with the death of his three-year-old daughter, and later the fiery ends of fellow pilots, a reminder that NASA’s path to the stars wasn’t without sacrifice. Though Neil Armstrong rarely spoke about his daughter, First Man places her death, his stoicism and his unexpressed grief at the heart of the portrayal.

The grounded focus extends to the space launches themselves, which are claustrophobic and largely shot in first-person, to a soundtrack of groaning metal and unintelligible radio chatter, and with only a postcard-sized window through which to see anything of the outside skies.

The exception, of course, is the moon landing itself, where Armstrong was famously allowed outside to bounce around for a while. What could easily have been a grossly overblown moneyshot is instead executed so delicately, and with such quiet magnificence, that you can’t help but be awed by it.

Viewed through the sober lens of an understated hero, First Man allows the fact that these events took place do most of the heavy lifting. An inspiring homage to humankind’s biggest and least believable achievement.