Review: “First Man”

By Sarah Bryant

Directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong and Claire Foy as his wife, Janet, “First Man” looked like Oscar bait from the first trailer. The movie follows the backstory to the Apollo 11 space mission on July 20, 1969.

The film portrays Armstrong as a troubled man who struggled with the loss of his two-year-old daughter, Karen, who died in 1962 from pneumonia as a result of a condition known as “glioma of the pons” which is “a malignant tumor growing within part of her brain stem.” Her passing haunted him for years, affected his motivation to fly, and impacted his dedication to his other two sons, Ricky and Mark, who actually acted as consultants on the film.

Despite a strong arc for Armstrong, several critics agree that Claire Foy’s performance stole the show. Her dedicated research into the life of her character and phrasing of an American accent did not go unnoticed. She was able to portray a worried wife and a loving mother. We see the struggles of their marriage, the comfort she found in other NASA-wives, and the tole the stress took on her personally. However, through it all, Janet supports Neil. There is a scene in which they are talking about his job, and she simply gives him a smile and states, “It’ll be an adventure.” It was a scene that stuck out to me as reflecting the relationship they had, and how much she was there for him.

The movie also focused on the comradery among all of the astronauts and their families during the tiresome years of training. With new friendships and fresh starts came heartbreak and bitterness when more and more lives were lost during the numerous test missions. The movie captures how personal it was for these men and their home lives. They struggled along with the rest of the nation at the debate of whether or not these explorations were worth it, but they persisted and eventually changed the course of history.

Composer Justin Hurwitz wrote an eerily beautiful score to accompany the stunning scenery of space. The soundtrack made a noticeable addition to the viewing experience as it either calmed me down or gave me another adrenaline rush. Quite simply, without the drone of brass or the strumming of the harp, this movie would not be as successful.

While several people were quick to complain about the fact that the movie does not show the men actually placing down the American flag, I inversely found it appropriate. I believe it tied in with the ongoing theme of the movie in which Armstrong did not care about the politics behind the flight. He cared about his family, he cared about flying, and he cared about getting to the moon safely. The film still included his famous quote, and they do still show the flag in its place.

There are also several scenes in which the directors took some liberties and admittedly added features for dramatic effect, but in fear of releasing any spoilers, I will not go into much detail. I understand where the confusion and anger might come from, but I found the additions achieved the goal, and I was not bothered by them. I find that with most historical fiction films, Hollywood should have allowance to add certain aspects so long as they do their best to maintain the truth in what they have knowledge about, as “First Man” clearly attempted.

I should also note that some scenes are definitely intense and nerve-wracking. However, the creators did a successful job of giving you time to breathe in between as they included calming moments as well. The movie was given a PG-13 rating and had a limited use of profanity. The movie’s finale might seem somewhat underwhelming at first, but after pondering more in my seat as the credits began to role, I found it fitting. Therefore, I encourage any viewer to not listen to possible negative reviews being published and give this movie the benefit of those doubts and the chance it deserves.

“First Man” will make you grab the armrest for dear life. It will make you want to cry over and over again. It will leave your jaw sore from clenching. It will leave your heart pounding and still gasping for air after holding your breath in anticipation. It will make you laugh at the humaneness and the peaceful moments the Armstrong family were able to share. It will make you thankful for the real-life sacrifice those men chose to go through. I was utterly moved by this film, and I think it holds a story everyone needs to see.

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Edited 10/16/2018 to correct Claire Foy’s dialogue from the film. It is “it will be an adventure,” not “it will be a new adventure.”


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