Can the landing of the first man on the moon be… anticlimactic? In First Man, it almost is.
For a couple of reasons. We know how it turns out. The video is iconic. The “small step/giant leap” quote is ingrained into our beings.
But mainly, First Man delivers tension, suspense and the threat of peril in the life and career of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) well before the moon landing. By the time Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) are ready to moonwalk, the film has already presented the stoic Armstrong in situations that put him through intense physical and emotional challenges.
Yes, the moon landing is First Man’s money shot. And, yes, there’s a tingle that comes when the lunar vehicle is looking for a landing spot. But what precedes that event is what makes the movie another winner from director Damien Chazelle of La La Land and Whiplash fame.
The real life Armstrong was not as outgoing as other U.S. astronauts. Shepard, Glenn, Aldrin, Cooper and others were more visible via media. Armstrong, though not a recluse, did not seem to savor the limelight.
Gosling is excellent in his portrayal of a man who generally keeps his emotions in check. I’d argue that it’s harder to portray this kind of individual convincingly than to play more flamboyant types.
First Man shows Armstrong as a family man dealing with crises at home as well as a space pioneer applying his knowledge and talents to his job. His wife Janet (Claire Foy) provides needed support but also confronts him just before the moon mission, demanding he talk to his sons about the danger and risk ahead.
As other space films have shown, there is friendly competition among astronauts but a special camaraderie also exists. Armstrong’s grief when fellow spacemen-to-be suffer bad fates is deeply felt.
The soundtrack by Justin Hurwitz complements the visuals and the action beautifully.
The story of the Neil Armstrong you never knew (unless you read the book that First Man is based on) adds meaningful context to recollections of the space race and that singular accomplishment America achieved one Sunday evening in July 1969.