First Man


“Houston, Tranquility base here, the Eagle has landed”

A daunting task, not least due to the frank newness of the young director, Damien Chazzelle, to pull off this story about Neil Armstrong in the place and setting where it happened. And still, with source-material running near 700-pages, Chazzelle and writer, Josh Singer, managed to pull off one of the better biographical projects in two-step harmony between the man and the mission. Echoing the words of Kennedy, I imagine Chazzelle had a moment where he felt overwhelmed, but reminded himself that he had to tell this story, “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” Now with his third installment, A.O. Scott (New York Times) is right to notice how  “Whiplash,” “La La Land” and now “First Man” all concern a “young man’s hunger for greatness, and suggest a developmental sequence, for both the archetypal character and for the director . . . Armstrong, a husband and father embedded in an organization that rewards both individual initiative and regimental discipline, completes the sequence.”

At its heart, First Man is about family and sacrifice.

A film about FAMILY.

With Janet (Claire Foy) playing the part of the stable force of equilibrium that draws whatever semblance of compassion that remains in the body of the distant and mechanical man of steel: the essential piece and the soul of the film that plays to the anxiety and frustration of the nation in its struggle to support the voyage in the midst of uncertainty. As A.O. Scott writes: “Janet sometimes seems to move through her days in anticipation of widowhood, and the progress of the Gemini and Apollo programs is measured partly in lives lost.” Foy was a force, channeling the emotional fervor typically reserved for today’s great power hitters like Viola Davis, Andrea Riseborough, and Carey Mulligan.


Gosling — the resolved man of mission — struggling to forget as he aspires to press ahead in a constant daze of mission-focused-motivation and forgetfulness that his own family needs him, just as much as the nation, to renew hope. I’ve been a fan of Gosling for a while now and this is maybe the first role since Half Nelson that I’ve seen him breakthrough with an impressive performance of Armstrong’s “famously private and controlled personality.

The connection to his daughter was indelible. It seemed very appropriate that Armstrong, with his feet finally on the moon, kept his heart-broken and grounded at the foot of Karen’s grave.

For those wondering about this last scene, I found this:

In the real-life sequence of events on the moon, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went through a carefully choreographed series of movements, save for a brief moment when Armstrong went off script to stand at the edge of the crater. Hansen [Armstrong’s official biographer], after spending years with the Armstrongs, speculated that, perhaps at this moment, the astronaut had left something of Karen’s behind

A film about SACRIFICE.

Not just the men and their families at NASA, but the nation inside a monumental moment of cultural transition. This was the secondary motivating narrative as the film (according to one source) “follow[ed] Jim Hansen’s book . . . religiously,” but obviously had to mention certain things incidentally.

Two things especially:

The Civil Rights Movement: invoked by that great Gil Scott-Heron track featured by the recitation of Leon Bridges: “No hot water, no toilets, no lights, (but Whitey’s on the moon).” Alexis C. Madrigal (The Atlantic) really nails the profound inclusion of this in what was otherwise a minimal nod to an immensely important moment for the black community. She writes:

My words of appreciation for his work and life are small before his talent. Let me just say that his track, “Whitey on the Moon,” changed the way I thought about the space race forever. It anchored the flight into the heavens, tethering it to the persistence of racial inequality, and pulling it out of the abstract, universal realm in which we like to place our technical achievements. Though I still think the hunger for the technological sublime crosses racial boundaries, it destabilized the ease with which people could use “our” in that kind of sentence. 

The Math & Science: absent was a deeper look into the brilliance of innovation in creating and executing a moment for human kind like no other. Great films don’t shy away from the rigor of academics and in First Man,  Josh Singer largely left the complicated areas of rocket science and space exploration to the curious viewers to explore on their own in an effort to retain whatever semblance of attention the audience had in store. That, for me, was a mistake. (I’ve heard people actually walking out because the film was too slow.) The film has received its share of praise from the scientific community for doing its homework (see, e.g., here and here and here). This was likely an aspect of the film that most of the audience will fail to appreciate.

For me, the most underwhelming part was the score (one of my favorite parts of a film alongside writing), which left much to be desired from composer Justin Hurwitz, certainly no match for the great comparative scores like Hans Zimmer in Interstellar, Steve Price in Gravity, John Murphy in Sunshine, and Clint Mansell in Moon. I felt like I was hearing too many remnants of La La Land and not enough First Man to inspire.

In the end, I am again forced to rely on A.O. Scott who really got this right:

“First Man” falls short of that kind of grandeur, though not for lack of trying. It gets almost everything right, but it’s also strangely underwhelming. It reminds you of an extraordinary feat and acquaints you with an interesting, enigmatic man. But there is a further leap beyond technical accomplishment — into meaning, history, metaphysics or the wilder zones of the imagination — that the film is too careful, too earthbound, to attempt.

Adam Graham (Detroit News) perhaps missed the point when he wrote that First Man had trouble leaving the ground, since this was in fact where the heart of the story lay. Like Free Solo, it wasn’t so much the voyage that’s going to captivate the audience, but the preparation towards the courage to begin. Those who complained that the film failed to sufficient glamorize the moon landing completely misunderstood that First Man is a movie about the first man, not some propaganda flick to satisfy nationalists.