First Man Review – A Man’s Personal Journey to the Moon
Academy Award-Winning director Damien Chazelle tells the story of Neil Armstrong, delving into his personal life and the events that led up to getting man on the Moon. But is First Man “out of this world” or is it a “lunar letdown?”
In 1969, Neil Armstrong ventured where no man had gone before and became the first man to walk on the moon. First Man is a personal look into the life of Neil Armstrong and how his life led up to a moment that will forever be remembered in history as one of humanity’s greatest achievements.
The film begins with Neil Armstrong’s 1962 X-15 flight, where he got up to 207,500 ft. before his flight path began to “balloon,” which is when an aircraft continues soaring to altitudes that it’s not meant to reach. Right from the start of the film, the audience is thrown directly into stressful chaos that becomes a common theme throughout the film. From the X-15 flight to Gemini 8, Armstrong’s first spaceflight where Gemini began rotating rapidly, directorial cues such as the urgently shaky camerawork and roaring sound effects successfully portray the danger and fear felt by the astronauts.
Director Damien Chazelle puts the audience directly in the pilot seats or command modules of Armstrong’s flights. The majority of perspectives that the audience sees is what the astronauts themselves would see, shots of the control panels or of the small window in the command module. There are both advantages and disadvantages to these point of view shots. It’s hard to tell what exactly is happening when the only clues are astronaut jargon, unless you have a prior knowledge about space flight. On the other hand, the audience does get an accurate feel for the urgency and chaos felt by the astronauts during these emergencies.
The audience also gets to know the life of Neil Armstrong on a more personal level. For example, the film portrays his daughter, Karen, who died of pneumonia due to her weakened health from a malignant brain tumor at the age of 2. Chazelle did a phenomenal job of conveying the emotions felt by the Armstrong family, contributing to the film’s extremely poignant ending. First Man also shows the immense loss Armstrong suffered throughout his career, losing two close friends (Elliot See in a plane crash and Ed White in the Apollo 1 fire) in merely a year.
Using subtle cues such as showing Armstrong keeping Karen’s bracelet to Buzz Aldrin telling interviewers that he’s bringing some of his wife’s jewelry to leave on the Moon, the audience is able to understand the meaning and depth of Armstrong placing Karen’s bracelet on the Moon. There were many emotional subtleties like this throughout First Man that perfectly hit their mark.
First Man differs from similar historical space films, such as Apollo 13 or Hidden Figures, because it’s a personal look into the man rather than a history of the Apollo 11 mission itself. This was Damien Chazelle’s intention. “I think we wanted to try to get at that vulnerability, that human quality, because I think he’s become in the collective imagination such a poker-faced, almost marble statue hero. But to people like his kids, he was just Dad. You know? And to people in the neighborhood, he was — you know, he was the guy down the street,” Chazelle told NPR in an interview
Damien Chazelle recruited Justin Hurwitz once again to create the soundtrack for First Man. In my opinion, this is one of the strongest points of the film. The track, “Houston,” matches the vibe of science and innovation of the 1960’s while “Translunar” perfectly embodies the majesty and vastness of space with the view of the mysterious Moon coming into sight. Hurwitz solidifies himself as one of the next great film composers with a style that’s in between John Williams’s classic sound and Hans Zimmer’s experimentation.
Upon learning that Neil Armstrong had a love of the theremin, Hurwitz taught himself how to play the unique instrument through YouTube tutorials to integrate into the soundtrack. In an interview with IndieWire, Hurwitz said, “We wanted to use some of the spacier elements, even in the more intimate earthbound cues and the theremin is just a great intersection between technology and humanity.”
First Man didn’t come without its controversies. Upon hearing that the planting of the American flag on the Moon wouldn’t be included in the film, there was an uproar. The film was accused of being unpatriotic, even bordering on treasonous. But it’s clear that those who are criticizing this decision haven’t actually seen the full film. While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are not shown planting the flag, it is still visible in multiple shots during their Moon walk.
Chazelle denied claims that he was making a political statement. He said in a statement, “I wanted the primary focus in that scene to be on Neil’s solitary moments on the moon — his point of view as he first exited the LEM, his time spent at Little West Crater, the memories that may have crossed his mind during his lunar EVA.” This scene recognizes the Moon Landing as a human achievement, rather than focusing on it as an American achievement.
First Man paints a personal picture of a man that the world recognizes as a hero, giving the audience the opportunity to see him as he was: a human. Screenwriter Josh Singer spent four years researching the life of Neil Armstrong, using James R. Hansen’s official biography, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, as a reference to understand the man that the world doesn’t personally know much about.
Singer told Business Insider about how they were planning for the scene where Armstrong gets the call about the Apollo 1 fire that killed all the astronauts aboard, including his good friend, Ed White. Chazelle and Singer had written him having a reaction much like De Niro in Goodfellas where he slams the phone handle on the receiver as he hears the news that Joe Pesci’s character had been killed.
Author James Hansen then read this scene and Singer recalled, “He said, ‘Neil would never have done that!’ So we wound up having this moment where you see Neil go dead in the eyes and you look down and he’s literally broken the glass he was holding and he’s bleeding. It’s like you see how hard he’s trying to contain himself in that moment. And with that, Jim said, ‘OK, maybe I could buy that.’” This is a testament to how much care and accuracy went into First Man and it shows.
While First Man lacked the grandeur and spectacle that you would expect from a retelling of the first man to set foot on the Moon, it is an insightful, emotional glance into an American icon’s life. The things I learned about Neil Armstrong and the determination he had to power through the grief in his life made me respect him so much more. There’s no doubt First Man will receive recognition when awards season comes around (Best Original Score, Best Director, Best Actor, maybe even Best Picture), but I would recommend this film purely for the realistic look into the events that led up to the Moon Landing. First Man wasn’t spectacularly out of this world, rather it was a humanistic portrayal of the people behind Apollo 11.
What did you think of First Man? Would you recommend people see it? If you haven’t seen it, do you plan to?