NASA has sadly existed outside the minds of Americans for much of my adult life. I remember growing up and still being fascinated by the nature of exploration into the unknown. I remember when NASA and space travel was still something that most people got excited about. Then something happened. I don’t know what the exact moment was. Perhaps it was 9/11, but space exploration became something that was a waste of money and meant to be in the movies. Space travel became science fiction. Not because it didn’t still happen, but because it was less frequent and largely outside of the mind of average Americans.
‘First Man’ reminds us of a time when attempting to explore the unknown was all the rage of the world. When we actively attempted to do hard things for reasons other than war or economics. And it shows it to us through the lens of a true cinematic visionary (Damien Chazelle) and through the eyes of the most humble hero America has ever known, Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling). The film reveals the trials and tribulations that lead to that fateful trip to the moon, but it most importantly illuminates the family turmoil (the real cost) that transpired because of these explorers actions.
The movie opens up in the cockpit of an X-15 while it crosses over the plain of our atmosphere and briefly into the vastness of space. Borrowing heavily from the aesthetic that Christopher Nolan used in ‘Interstellar’ and less from the rousing space adventures of the past, this opening puts you on the edge of your seat like no space movie before it. Part of this is because of the dizzying cockpit cinematography, but the editing and sound also contributes to the excitement. In fact, the sound design Oscar can be handed right now as far as I’m concerned. This is some of the best work in sound I’ve ever heard.
After this intense opening, we are introduced to Armstrong’s family and the tragedy that would grow to shape his life in ways nobody really knew because of his silent nature. I know it’s so early in the film, but I don’t want to ruin for you what happens if you know little about Armstrong’s life. So, I will just point out with clarity that the events of these early family scenes establish a deep connection that matter more to the narrative of this film than any one event you know from history. And it’s this thread that runs deep through ‘First Man’ and raises it into the level of greatness, despite some of its flaws. There are dozens of fantastic scenes that tick of pieces of history and some of these individual sections contain some the best scenes of 2018, but it’s the thread of Armstrong’s inner turmoil that makes this film great.
Well, that and all the talent on display in this film. There are a plethora of brilliant performances in this film and a few supporting roles that are just beautifully rendered. Those include character performances by Jason Clarke, Patrick Fugit, Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler, and a whole host of other brilliant actors filling out the heroic astronauts that put their life on the line for a glimpse into the potential of humankind. Ryan Gosling is also Oscar worthy as the introverted Armstrong. It’s very difficult to play a quiet character, but even more difficult to carry an adventurous film like this and provide insight into a historical figure that’s as silently stand offish as Neil was. And Claire Foy provides the much needed female heart and soul of this film as Neil’s rock of a wife, Janet. In another’s hands, Janet might have been one dimensional, but Foy makes her the audiences eyes. She also deserves Oscar consideration.
There are a few issues I had with the film, but even my issues were mixed feelings. The first is the choice of to use the Super 16mm film stick for so much of this film. There are points where it works in the family sequences or long shots of rooms and I understand they wanted to make it feel like a 60’s documentary, but it can be distractingly fuzzy on the big screen. A fact that is especially true in the insanely shaky cockpit scenes. At some points I actually got so dizzy I had to look away. Now, part of this feels necessary and truly intense, but I feel it may have gone too far and if it gives me a headache then that can detract from the rest of the film.
Still, these sequences manage to be some of the best scenes of space flight ever captured because of the reality of the shot choices and the amazing sound design. While I may wish they had slightly reduced the camera shake and shot more of the film with IMAX or 35mm cameras (they do use all three formats), there is no denying the power of these sequences. The question is whether I want to wait to experience them again on a smaller screen. I’m not sure yet. Regardless, I will be watching ‘First Man’ well into the rest of my life. Yes, because it is important history, but mostly because it provides an almost ‘Tree of Life’ aesthetic to a film about space travel. I feel like I have lived Armstrong’s experience in some small way. And that is no small cinematic accomplishment.