First Man

KnightLife Movie Review

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On top of the bookcase in our living room is a mini replica of the Apollo command module docked with its lunar module. I was probably seven years old when my parents first taught me about the Apollo Space Program. They really wanted to see the movie First Man with me (and honestly, anything that stars Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, I’m probably going to see anyway). Since the movie came out so recently, this will be a spoiler-free review of Damien Chazelle’s newest film, First Man, which is already generating plenty of Oscar buzz.

The key factor that makes this film so intense is not only the story it tells, an experience that placed stress on everyone involved with its numerous uncertainties, but its approach to telling that story.

Almost the entirety of First Man was filmed with hand-held cameras, a brilliant tactic to use when recounting the story of a major chapter in American history that the audience has only experienced through popular media and the documentation of the space program in history. It allows the audience to feel the anxiety, joy, and sadness that the characters feel. The viewer is put in the same stressful situations the characters are too. I have never experienced anything like it before.

Gosling’s Armstrong is detached and his dialogue is sparse. The audience doesn’t understand a lot about his concerns and inner thoughts through his appearance, actions and dialogue alone. The people who can truly get him to open up are his wife and close friends, who are all background characters but are very important and thoughtfully developed at the same time. It’s through them that we understand the famously stoic Armstrong. In a way, it’s as much their story as it is his even though they receive a significantly less amount of screen time. The effects of these background characters are felt throughout the entire film and these characters eventually serve a purpose that is beyond being our proxy to Neil.

The movie portrays how Armstrong’s stoic, calm, and seemingly put-together demeanor allowed him to adjust to the process of becoming an astronaut and gain the experience needed to be chosen by NASA to be the first man on the moon.

However, the film is not hesitant to point out how Armstrong’s stoic personality was sometimes unhealthy. He is depicted as putting stress on those closest to him for not telling them about what is truly bothering him.

It’s Janet Armstrong who holds Neil accountable for his actions and how he treats others, more than anyone else. She’s a background character, but she is the most important background character. This movie is undoubtedly about Neil Armstrong, but it’s Janet Armstrong who is depicted as having the strong voice, the sound reasoning, and the courage to ask  for the respect that she deserves from anyone who isn’t giving it to her, and not Neil. Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong is captivating. I remember this movie for her performance as Janet Armstrong just as much as I remember the movie for Gosling’s portrayal of Neil Armstrong.

My parents really wanted me to see this movie with them, and they were not disappointed, and neither was I. I loved how First Man isn’t afraid to give what they think is an accurate portrayal of Neil Armstrong as a person. It includes well-thought-out background characters as well as a female character who is on screen for the overwhelming majority and has a major effect on the character development of our main protagonist, Neil Armstrong.