When we were in primary school, Neil Armstrong was a name that many of us have heard or learnt as the first person to set foot on the moon. But little do we about the man and the hardships and sacrifices he endured during his life. First Man (2018), Damien Chazelle’s biographical drama about the mission to send Armstrong to the moon tries to bridge that gap.
The film based on First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen gives a close look at Armstrong’s personal life, his family, and those who were closest to him, as well as the emotional impact of the things leading up to one of the scariest missions in history.
Though Armstrong’s moon mission is the focus of Damien Chazelle’s biographical drama, the film focuses far more on Armstrong’s life. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is introduced in the first scenes of First Man as a test pilot in California in the year 1961. Armstrong is shown as a gentle and talented engineer whose focus is distracted by the difficult emotional journey he and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are taking as they watch their two-year-old daughter Karen get treatment for a brain tumour. The illness and death of Armstrong’s daughter would later turn out to be the harshest loss both in his and his wife’s life.
First Man also details Armstrong’s test flights in the hypersonic X-15, his achievement of the first-ever space docking aboard Gemini 8, the tragic deaths of his co-workers during the Apollo 1 launchpad fire, and of course the historic Apollo 11 mission (1961-1969).
The systematic but emotionally troubled figure is brilliantly portrayed by Ryan Gosling, and you are left wondering what motivates him all the time. It’s masterfully done how he gradually isolates himself from his family to the point where, on the eve of his lunar launch, he doesn’t want to say goodbye to his kids. As the frustrated and worried spouse of the legendary astronaut, Claire Foy excels and demonstrates why she is every bit Ryan Gosling’s equal.
Damien Chazelle does an excellent job of conveying to the audience how risky these missions actually were. The set pieces in the film are its best feature. The different launches are captured with a camera that shakes wildly, which effectively conveys the chaos and danger of spacecraft missions. The sound effects like clattering and rumbling metals add fear to these situations.
In the end, First Man is more about the astronaut’s life-changing experience than it is about the moon mission and its importance to the United States. We are given a fresh perspective in which the astronaut’s mission to the moon is compared to a metamorphosis.
The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing, and it won the award for Best Visual Effects in 2019.