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Movie Review: First Man

First Man takes something that is studied in schools around the world, something we all know, and makes it new and transcendent and human

First Man
Directed by Damien Chazelle
In Theatres

But first, a story. My first real memory is of watching Neil Armstrong step onto the moon. I remember we had a little black and white TV and I remember the picture was pretty fuzzy and the sound was sketchy. And I remember not understanding what anyone was saying or what they were talking about. But I do remember understanding that this man in the grainy pictures on the TV was on the moon. I don't remember which Apollo mission it was, it must have been a later one, but I remember watching grainy footage on the TV and my dad taking me outside and pointing at the moon in the sky and saying "those men on the TV, they're up there right now. They're up there."

Neil Armstrong climbed down a ladder and placed his foot on the lunar surface just shy of seven years after John F. Kennedy said "we choose to go the moon in this decade". Just sixty six years after Orville and Wilbur Wright had flown at Kitty Hawk, NC. Twenty two years after Chuck Yeager had exceeded the speed of sound. Eight years after Yuri Gagarin had become the first human in space. Four years after Alexei Leonov had completed the first space walk. It took us 104 years to get from George Cayley's glider to the Wright Brothers. In July of 1969 there were people watching a transmission from the moon who had read of the Wright Brothers in a newspaper. To have accomplished so much so fast is dizzying to think about. Sometimes our species is capable of amazing things. 

And now we get to First Man.

The film begins in 1961, when Neil Armstrong was testing the X-15, and ends with the moon landing. And I've been fighting with how not to get all hyperbolic and pretentious but I can't help it. First Man is among the finest films I've seen, well, ever. It looks amazing, it sounds amazing, the acting is amazing. I love everything about First Man. Somehow, against all odds, director Damien Chazelle and writer Josh Singer and their team have crafted a character study that is also a realistic look at the early days of space flight. In lesser hands this film could have been Neil Armstrong's Life, the Greatest Hits. The X-15, astronaut training, the Gemini program, Apollo, touchdown on the moon, Buzz and Neil high five in slow motion over the moon while Columbia drifts overhead, Taylor Swift sings over the credits. 

Instead, First Man is a character study. A look into the soul of man who was reserved and taciturn and humble but was also the commander of one of the most important journeys in human history. A private man who would have schools and libraries and museums and asteroids and ships and elements named after him. Ryan Gosling is the perfect actor to play Neil Armstrong. He can do much more with silence than most actors can do with a monologue. The depths of Armstrong's personality, his grief, his doubts, his intelligence, his playfulness, his love of family, friends, colleagues are conveyed in glances, in the way he holds his body, a turn of the head. Mr. Gosling's performance is so reserved, so stoic that when a flash of emotion is shown it is jolting. 

Claire Foy is damn near perfection as Janet Armstrong, married to a man who can share his joy but never his grief. A man who will risk everything for something that he can't verbalize, for reasons that can't be explained. She has to be his rock, his calm, his interpreter for their friends, his partner. But she also has to be the one that tells him when he is being selfish, when he needs to cut the act, when he needs to be a father, husband, friend. Ms Foy's Janet is one of the most human and real performances of a woman of that era that I've ever seen. She does what is expected by the culture of not only a housewife and mother, but as a spouse of one of the great heroes of ever. But she has her limits and will do what needs to be done. 

There are so many great performances in First Man, so many. Every performance is note perfect, for the film and the time. 

And now let us talk of other things. 

First Man is almost impressionist, it doesn't deal with the history of space flight from 1961 to 1969 in a straightforward way. It's almost dreamlike in its pacing, in its storytelling. There are no villains, except for the one that is Neil Armstrong's need to build walls around the emotions he doesn't want to share. This isn't a movie written by someone who has read Save the Cat. This is a screenplay written by the writer of Spotlight, another historical piece that we all thought we knew the story of.  

There are many things I want to talk about here. The attention to detail - Apollo 11 and Gemini 8 both look like they were cobbled together out of spare parts. The toggle switches and labels and handles and, well, everything about them is alarming to our more modern expectations. We expect plastic and touch screens and digital readouts and they had metal and dials and toggle switches and alarm codes that had to be interpreted by someone in Houston. Or how we feel that we are in the cockpit of the X-15 and the Gemini 8 and the Apollo 11. 

I could go on and on and on for another thousand words about my love of First Man. But I won't. What I will say is that I really, really, really liked the first three quarters of First Man. The last act and the epilogue, though, will be the stuff of legend. First Man takes something that is studied in schools around the world, something we all know, and makes it new and transcendent and human.